A British journeyman and a former fashion executive who has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Richard Branson and Louise Feraud, Robert Epstone received his life calling in Bali.
Having had a successful career as a fashion executive, Robert Epstone’s idea of retirement is living in the sun-washed paradise island of Bali – helping disadvantaged children. Called by his peers and locals alike as The Man of Hope, he has embarked on a mission of walking barefoot until a funding goal of $1 million is reached.
Human Asia caught up to see how things are going in this exclusive interview.
Tell us more about your childhood and earlier life.
Robert: I was born in Leeds, England in 1948. Having obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Textile Management, I became an accredited textile technologist. I subsequently worked for various clothing companies, rising to the level of Managing Director and Board Member during my career.
I designed an exclusive collection for Liberty, and in the same year (1976), worked alongside Louise Feraud on a men’s cashmere outer-wear collection which sold globally. In 1986, after a ten-year long licensing business at Marui Stores in Tokyo, “Robert Epstone” gained recognition as an exclusive ‘private menswear brand’ at the Marui Department Stores in Tokyo.
How did you end up in Bali?
Robert: In 1991, I experienced a Buddhist awakening and became very passionately determined to somehow make a difference in the world.
My first humanitarian experience was helping to make a film to expose the drug barons and deforestation issue in Peru. This BBC sponsored film was shown at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Shortly after my 60th birthday my girlfriend (later to be my wife) and I moved to Bali, both on ‘retirement’ visas. I joined a local Rotary club in order to meet people and was given a project (and $20,000 funding from 5 Rotary clubs in Hawaii) to build 20 water wells in Sumba, a small island 1hr 15mins flight north of Bali. Sumba is also reputedly the last Neolithic civilization in the world.
I arrived there not knowing anyone, not speaking the language and without any knowledge of building wells. I was very fortunate in meeting the local General Manager of Pro-Air, one of the largest water supply NGO’s in Indonesia with huge projects in Sumba. They gave me blue print plans for building wells, seconded their chief engineer to me for two months as he was retiring, gave me an additional $1,500 and put me on a water supply course to learn how to teach the villager how to dig and create solid wells.
What drove you to start Solemen?
Robert: Following completion of the water wells project, Shelley and I visited Shanghai on holiday. One of my friends, a UK film director, was walking around China without shoes to raise money to build libraries for poor children.
I was very inspired by this and on returning home to Bali, I took off my shoes and felt determined to start a charity. I declared I would remain barefoot until I’d raised $1million for the poor and disadvantaged in Bali.
I asked a fellow Rotarian who was also a Hindu priest and a leader of the Democratic ruling party in Bali to create a charity for me, and for him to be president of the charity. Mangku Made Ariawan is still our President.
Yayasan Solemen Indonesia (Solemen Foundation) was formed in October 2010. I decided first to try and build credibility for the charity and myself before attempting to fundraise. So I arranged a barefoot 535 km walk around Bali. Four of us met up every few days with a doctor and two nurses so we could distribute supplements and give health checks and presentations to children who had never seen a doctor before.
What motivates you day-in day-out to care so much for these people?
Robert: I have enjoyed a very full and interesting life travelling all over the world with many adventures. Now in my sixties I feel so very grateful each day, after having created the opportunity to be in a position to be able to give back to people so much less fortunate than myself and to be doing this full time.
I feel that having gratitude in life is extremely important. I love living life to the full, having
adventures, new experiences and pushing the boundaries but most of all, I am so deeply thankful that I am able to make a real difference in the community where I am now living.
Living in Bali is living the dream, having the opportunity to enhance and save lives and this is what motivates me personally each day. I described Solemen’s core values in our video: There’s a man walking along the beach and he sees a small girl with thousands of starfish and she’s throwing them one by one into the sea. He says to her “you’re wasting you’re time, you’re not making any difference – there are far too many of them!” She throws one into the sea and turns to him and says “ IT MADE A DIFFERENCE TO THAT ONE!”. This is what Solemen do each day.
To watch the video, watch here:
Define what success is for you, and for Solemen
Robert: Success for me is being able to live each day and wake up with consistent enthusiasm to fulfill my dreams for myself and Solemen.
Solemen has earned a great reputation in a relatively short time of being one of the most well-respected charities in Bali. The Governor of Bali, Mangku Made Pastika last June publicly declared Solemen to be his personal preferred charity and announced he had become Solemen’s ‘Pelindung’ (official Guardian/Protector).
I see success for Solemen, in the hopefully not too distant future for the charity to become completely sustainable, with bases located in the north, east, south and west of Bali with our own full time doctors, nurses, therapists, and nutritionists rather than having to rely on volunteers. Success for me will be achieving this sustainable solidity and structure.
Advice for people who want to start a charity to help others?
Robert: The main advice I would give is to be sure to establish at the beginning a solid and transparent structure. Make sure you enlist people who are passionate, loyal, trustworthy, determined, and capable, and who above all are excellent team players with great communication skills.
I very much believe that it’s not a question of our environment and to be swayed by such externals is pointless and dangerous. It all comes down to one person: YOU! As Daisaku Ikeda says: ‘What matters most is that you become a brilliant beacon, shining with joy and happiness, and live your life with confidence and courage.
If you shine with the radiant light, there can be no darkness in your life’. I very much believe in Goethe’s statement (200 years ago): ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.’
This is my advice to people who want to start a non-profit to help others. But to be sure to always remember your motivation has always to come from the heart and not the mind.