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Seeing a Need for Change

"When it comes to employees, we build a work culture that nurtures curiosity, rewards creativity, and provides endless learning opportunities (classes, training sessions, book clubs, speakers, and beyond)."

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Neil Blumenthal
Co-founder and Co-CEO, Warby Parker

In a world that is changing faster than ever before in human history, we navigate an unbelievable amount of uncertainty and ambiguity. This holds true for minor things (They’re upgrading iPhone software? Again!?!) and major things (entire industries are dying and whole new industries are being born). The people best prepared to broker ambiguity and uncertainty are those who are passionate, because they are the ones who will find a way to get things done — and thrive — regardless of the obstacles before them.

Passion, of course, isn’t the only ingredient for thriving; one must also know where his or her strengths lie. Over the course of my own work life, I’ve come to define “success” as just that: the point where a person’s passions and strengths intersect. I’ve also found that people are more likely to encounter that point at a mission-driven organization — that is, an organization with a clearly articulated determination to do good in the world.

Six years ago, I was a business school student at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. One of my friends, Dave Gilboa, lost a pair of glasses. When he went to buy a replacement pair, he was startled at how hard it was to find a stylish, high-quality pair of prescription glasses that didn’t cost as much as a round-trip ticket to London. We were on student budgets, and nobody in my group of friends was exactly jetting off to Europe on casual jaunts, so this was not only a startling problem but a practical one. Why was it so difficult to acquire such a basic tool for living?

After classes, during late-night Thai food dinners and over beers at the local pub, I talked to Dave and our two close friends, Jeff Raider and Andy Hunt, about the glasses problem. On a pragmatic level, it made no sense — after all, glasses had been invented 700 years ago, so the technology wasn’t exactly arcane. I also knew from firsthand experience that it was possible to manufacture high-quality glasses for far less than the going market rate.

Before enrolling at Wharton, I’d worked as the director of a nonprofit called VisionSpring. VisionSpring’s mission is to distribute affordable glasses to people in the developing world — and not only to distribute the glasses but also to train entrepreneurs in low-income communities to give eye exams, educate their communities about eye health, and help customers obtain a pair of glasses that would help them learn, work, and contribute to their communities. I knew firsthand that the problem of vision impairment is huge: 703 million people worldwide could have their vision restored with a pair of glasses, and 90 percent of people living with uncorrected vision are in the developing world.

I also knew that the opportunity was huge. A pair of glasses can increase an individual’s productivity by 35 percent and her monthly income by 20 percent. It makes intuitive sense: many jobs in developing nations — from weaving to farming — are reliant on good vision. A pair of glasses is an incredibly simple intervention that can make an enormous and immediate impact.

One example that comes to mind involves two brothers in their sixties that I met in Bangladesh. Toti and Omprakash Tewtia did everything together. They started a farming business together and raised their families together. (Between the two of them, they now have 15 grandchildren.) When I met them, the Tewtia brothers had three generations living in their homes — kids everywhere, playing and laughing. It was a lively scene.

As they grew older, their vision began to decline. When the highlight of your day is reading to your grandchildren, this is more than just an inconvenience. Storytime began ending in headaches, and eventually stopped altogether when the brothers couldn’t see well enough to read. When they were able to access eyecare and glasses, they were not only able to reinvigorate the nightly storytime, but they were also better able to identify pests on their crops and find treatments that would increase their yield.

Back home, my three friends and I spent hours trying to unravel the problem. Those conversations are what led us to launch Warby Parker, a company that would produce amazing prescription eyewear at affordable prices — $95, including prescription lenses — while distributing a pair to someone in need for every pair sold. We started the company in 2010, and today we’re proud to have distributed well over 1 million pairs to people in need.

We’re often asked how it’s possible — or, rather, how it could possibly make “good business sense”— to do this. My response is that it wouldn’t make good business sense not to do this. If the smartest and most talented people are drawn to work for companies that align with their values, then how could a company without strong values ever hope to thrive in a tumultuous economy? People who are passionate will do whatever it takes to get the job done, and these are exactly the kinds of employees a company needs now more than ever.

Although we built the buy-a-pair, give-a-pair model into our business from its very inception, we knew that it wasn’t enough. My three cofounders (yep, those same guys from Wharton) and I put our heads together and mapped out a plan for how we could make Warby Parker a business that would make us excited to come to work every day. Coming from the world of nonprofits, I knew how important it was that my work feel meaningful, and my cofounders felt the same way. The ultimate goal: carve out a place that would never, ever tempt us to hit the snooze button when we woke up at 7 a.m.

Out of those initial intentions grew our stakeholder-centric framework, which holds that every decision we make at Warby Parker must take our four stakeholders into account: customers, employees, the environment, and the community at large. When it comes to customers, we rely on the old golden rule and strive to treat them the way we’d want to be treated (this includes small things, like free shipping and returns, and big things, like delivering exceptional value and über-well-trained customer experience associates). When it comes to employees, we build a work culture that nurtures curiosity, rewards creativity, and provides endless learning opportunities (classes, training sessions, book clubs, speakers, and beyond). Warby Parker employees also engage with our communities on a local level — volunteering at like-minded organizations — and also on a macro level, ensuring that our factories are audited by a reliable third party to guarantee fair working conditions. And finally, when it comes to the environment, we don’t mess around: Warby Parker is one of the only carbon-neutral eyewear brands on earth.

Although it sounds simple to adopt a stakeholder-centric philosophy, it is actually fairly radical in the corporate world, where, legally, the shareholder has primacy. But I don’t think it will remain an anomaly much longer. When my co-CEO Dave and I interview corporate job candidates — and we still interview each one — we hear, again and again, that the reason people want to work at Warby Parker is our mission. I believe that businesses will become increasingly mission-driven as the pace of change speeds up. Companies that hope to survive in an uncertain world will have to prove themselves worthy of the talent they attract.

About the author

Neil Blumenthal is a co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, a transformative lifestyle brand that offers designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially-conscious businesses.


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