Robert L Gruber, the owner of A People United shop in Mount Vernon that sold women’s clothing made in India and Nepal and funded scholarships to students there, died of injuries from a motorcycle accident Nov 16 near Katmandu, Nepal. The Roland Park resident was 70.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was the son of Max Gruber, an entrepreneur, and Ethel Gruber. He graduated at age 16 from Lafayette High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College.
He analyzed stocks for a Wall Street firm and served in the Army in accounting in Stuttgart, Germany. He then earned a law degree at the University of Wisconsin and clerked for a judge in Madison, Wis.
“At this time in his life, he became politically radicalized and started fighting for social justice,” said his wife, Laura Lynn Emberson. “He started a law practice and did mostly nonprofit work.”
He moved to Baltimore in 1988 to enroll at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he received a degree.
His wife said that while working for the National Institutes of Health — a job he hated — he had an epiphany.
“He visualized a clear, direct way he could make the kind of impact on the world that had always been so important to him,” said his wife. “The way to help Third World women would be to help them to create products.”
He studied nonprofit programs, and visited Latin America and developed an appreciation for Guatemalan textiles. He went to El Salvador, Mexico, India and Nepal in search of products to sell in the U.S.
In a statement he prepared for his business, he said that he was impressed by Nepal and its wares.
”After a few trips and briefly buying from other vendors in Nepal, it became obvious how many children were not in school. The public schools were broke and in very poor condition. [There were] warehouses with no books and, sometimes, no teachers in the schools. Unsurprisingly, the kids didn’t show up,” he said.
He created a plan to enroll the children of the families who worked making his products in private, English-speaking schools that he would subsidize.
“As a result, he started a business so that women could do the weaving and their children go to schools with good books and good teachers,” his wife said. She said the largest school was in Bhaktapur, Nepal. He later had clothing made in India and became active with the Santi School in Nepal.
Mr. Gruber initially sold his wares at flea markets around Baltimore and Washington. In 1990 he opened a stall in Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market,. and in 1994 he opened his store at Charles and Hamilton streets in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon. He also developed a successful wholesale business for his women’s clothing.
“Robert had a very good heart and had a very good business head,” said Marc Sklar, the owner of Gian-Marco Menswear and a fellow Charles Street business owner. “He had it all there at his shop, from scarves to furniture.”
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Mr. Sklar said the business was unusual. “He had an interesting merchandising plan. He gave back to Nepal as well as to Baltimore. He used the retail end of his business to fund his charities, and he was truly interested in the folks in Nepal. He spent quite a bit of time there.”
Mr. Gruber explained his philosophy on his shop’s website: “In much of the developing world, women and children eat poorly. Our founding goal was to improve the economics, health, and education of children through a micro enterprise project. A People United is taken from the Chilean folk song, ‘A People United Can Never be Defeated.’ Our slogan is ‘Self-Sufficiency with Dignity.’ We have worked in a win-win strategy with workers in Nepal, one of the poorest nations in Asia and in India, paying better-than-average wages, and sending our Nepal colleagues' children to private schools in Nepal.”
He said that he had provided more than 1,000 scholarships for Nepalese children.
In his free time, Mr. Gruber enjoyed kayaking and biking with his family. He was a member of the Meadowbrook Swim Club and was an avid reader.
A memorial service will be held Dec. 30. The location and time has not been set.
In addition to his wife of 12 years, an art teacher at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, survivors include his daughter, Ayana Gruber, and two stepdaughters, Sera Emberson and Yvette Emberson, all of Baltimore; and a sister, Lynore Brown of Brooklyn.