Warby Parker launched in 2010 as a bold challenge to the traditional eyewear industry. The four founders didn’t see why a good-looking pair of glasses had to be so expensive, and figured they could improve the shopping experience, too.
Not only did the company manage to offer glasses for around $100, but it also lets customers try them on at home. And for each pair sold, another is donated to communities in developing countries. Over 1 million donations have been made so far. Now, the company is working with the City of New York and Johns Hopkins to help local kids get access to glasses.
In this edited and condensed interview, cofounders and co-CEOs Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa answer questions on their definition of impact and success.
Katheryn Thayer: When you founded this company, you saw some fundamental flaws in how consumers shop for glasses and how much frames cost. What was the new standard you wanted to set with your product and your service?
Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa: The standard we want to set is that companies can do it all. That you can offer an amazing product, scale, and do good in the world without charging a premium.
Thayer: You’re considered a leader in the buy-one-give-one retail movement. But your structure is a little more complicated – and thoughtful – than that. The “give-away” glasses are actually sold, helping developing-world entrepreneurs kick off their own businesses. Why is a give-away not impactful enough?
Blumenthal and Gilboa: We’ve always been focused on impact. At times, good intentions have unintended consequences. Giving something away in the wrong environment can create a culture of dependency and hurt local businesses. Our partnership with VisionSpring helps train low income entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and sell glasses to their communities at an affordable price. It ensures that glasses are always available, that the glasses are pairs that people actually want to wear (because nobody wants to wear a bad-looking pair of frames) and that it has a multiplying effect of creating jobs in communities in the developing world.
Thayer: VisionSpring has been a major partner for your program from the start. More recently, you’ve partnered with the City of New York and Johns Hopkins – they provide exams in local communities and you provide glasses. Why is it important to not go it alone in social entrepreneurship?
Blumenthal and Gilboa: Social entrepreneurship is all about solving intractable problems. It’s rare that you can solve a massive long-standing problem without collaboration. Each partner brings different strengths and insights to the table that allow us to get glasses on the faces of people who need them.
Thayer: How are these more recent partnerships with the City of New York and Johns Hopkins important to your scale and impact?
Blumenthal and Gilboa: We think it’s crazy that there are children in America that don’t have the glasses they need to succeed in school. Working with the City of New York and Johns Hopkins is enabling us to provide glasses to children from low-income families in urban areas as well as measure the impact of that in hopes of ultimately affecting public policy at a federal level.
Thayer: Outside of Warby Parker, how have you seen social entrepreneurship evolve over the last few years?
Blumenthal and Gilboa: The language of social entrepreneurship has become much more prevalent. It has expanded from the nonprofit sector into other areas. It has manifested itself in the B Corp movement, in which traditionally non-mission-driven for-profit companies are thinking about solving problems and serving all of their stakeholders, not just shareholders.
Thayer: What ongoing impact would you like to have in that conversation?
Blumenthal and Gilboa: Our hope is that we are serving as an example to other entrepreneurs and executives that you can run your business in a way that does well financially while also doing good in the world.
Thayer: What’s your definition of success?
Blumenthal and Gilboa: A world in which everyone who needs glasses has access to them, and nobody feels ripped off after buying them.
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