Need Blind: Vision Spring and Warby Parker Shake Up Eyewear With Impact

Friday, March 16, 2012

The right pair of glasses can give the gift of sight. The wrong pair can leave you looking like a coke-bottled doofus.

Eyewear is both a medical necessity and a fashion statement, and the companies who dominate the industry have a hold on both factors. Many of their customers would rather pay top dollar—or go without glasses altogether—rather than get stuck with the wrong pair. But if you can’t afford the price, new glasses often aren’t an option.

Social enterprises Warby Parker and VisionSpring are finding innovative ways to bring glasses to people who can’t afford huge markups. VisionSpring, a nonprofit social enterprise, focuses on selling low-cost glasses to people earning between $1 and $4 per day. Warby Parker, a for-profit B-Corp, sells affordable eyewear in the domestic market while donating a pair of frames to VisionSpring for each pair it sells. “It didn’t make sense to us that a pair of glasses costs as much as an iPhone,” says Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal.

Seeing the Need

VisionSpring founder Dr. Jordan Kassalow, an ophthalmologist by trade, spent his early career offering eye care services to underserved populations. His first patient was a 7-year-old boy who was attending a school for the blind. When Kassalow examined the child, he realized he wasn’t actually blind, but needed a very powerful prescription. “Being the person who got to put those glasses on his face for the first time, and see him move from a blinded child to a sighted child right in front of me was a very powerful moment that really changed both of our lives,” he says.

Kassalow worked in India for a year and spent another eight fightingriver blindness caused by an insect parasite in Africa. He became acutely aware that around 700 million people globally need glasses, 400 million of whom only require reading glasses. Receiving a prescription changed people’s lives dramatically. So in 2002, a time before benefit corporation and L3C designations, Kassalow founded VisionSpring, carving out new territory in the typical nonprofit structure. “I had no interest in starting a charity model,” he says, “because I felt strongly that in order to solve this problem in any significant way, you had to make the markets work… there weren’t enough donation dollars in the world that would make it scale.”

Instead, VisionSpring, working directly with manufacturers, circumvented eyewear companies that concentrate on the 10 percent of the populace in developing countries who own 90 percent of the wealth. “The vast majority of the 4 billion people in the world who earn less than four dollars a day is really the ignored market by the global multi-national optical industry,” Kassalow says.

By training 9,000 “vision entrepreneurs”—predominantly women in 13 developing countries—VisionSpring builds microenterprises within communities to sell low-cost glasses to customers who could not afford them otherwise. VisionSpring not only brings vision to those who need it, but demonstrates to the optical industry, “hey, there’s a market down here if you guys would pay attention to them,” Kassalow says.

Warby Parker co-founder Blumenthal got his start in the optical world at VisionSpring, running field operations for the organization. Among the lessons he learned (including how to source low-cost eyewear directly) was that “fashion matters no matter where you live in the world. You’d rather be blind than wear a used pair of 1970s cat eyes if you live in Bangladesh… you’ll get ridiculed by your friends and family,” he says. “There’s that same social construct, regardless of socio-economic status.”

So instead of giving away glasses in developing countries, VisionSpring’s model means designing, marketing and wooing value-conscious customers just as they would in the developed world. The process also taught Blumenthal that creating an affordable eyewear market can be a valuable service.

Source: GOOD (link opens in a new window)

Health Care, Impact Assessment
public health, social enterprise