After leading VisionSpring, a nonprofit that helps bring glasses to people who make less than $4 a day, Neil Blumenthal co-founded Warby Parker, a social enterprise that offers high-end glasses at a low price point, and donates a pair for every pair sold. This interview with Neil is an excerpt from Kern and Burn: Conversations With Design Entrepreneurs, a book that features candid conversations with 30 leading designers who have founded startups, channeled personal passions into self-made careers and taken risks to do what they love.
The success of WP is two-fold; it's very successful in the fashion world and in the social design world. Do you think the company would have been as successful without the social initiatives?
The social initiative was part of our DNA from day one and just something that motivated us personally. I think that it has had a profound effect on our business because our story makes sense to people. We’re offering a $95 product for something that is typically sold at $500, and that question automatically is well, 'Why?' And, 'How?' The why is because we personally experienced the effects of overpriced glasses, and we want to change the world.
We want to transfer billions of dollars from these big, multinational corporations to normal people. We have a history of doing good in the world. I had spent five years running VisionSpring, and this is something that is near and dear to our hearts, and that makes sense. The how is that we’re able to design the frames ourselves and produce them under our own brand. We've made relationships with the suppliers that make the hinges and the screws, and then custom-acetate and assemble the frames, and cut and etch the lenses, so we're able to bypass the middleman by having those direct-to-supplier relationships, and by filling orders online, we have direct-to-consumer relationships.
With backgrounds in business and international development, how did you decide to design the glasses yourselves?
I think while we haven't been properly trained, we each have a pretty distinct design sensibility. I have a little bit of experience designing a collection; while I was at VisionSpring, I learned how to do it on the job. And we would just draw references from what we like. We've often looked at what our grandparents wore, and now we produce a monocle that’s designed after Andy’s grandfather’s monocle.
We think that we get the social impact and revolutionary spirit from our parents, who were part of the hippie generation, and we get the design aesthetic and the fashion sense from our grandparents, who were going to work every day in the '40s and '50s.
You learned design on the job. Is business something that can be learned on the job as well? Are there other resources for designers to learn about business?
I think the best business people and managers understand design, and I think the best designers understand business and management. There has to be a lot more cross-pollination. Perhaps the business managers aren't working with the designers enough to allow the designers to know what the top priorities of the business are and what the trade-offs are. Likewise, business managers probably don't fully grasp the benefits of good design, so both sides need to learn. We have an amazing senior designer who leads our design team, and we’ve recently hired an executive coach for her. We’ve done that for all of our senior managers. Leadership needs to be taught in every school, design, nonprofit, you name it. I think that there is a big hole in our education system—we are not teaching people how to lead. We try to focus on leadership at Warby Parker. We ask ourselves, 'How can we each help each other grow professionally and personally?'
Are you working with VisionSpring to think of ways to continually push the social initiatives that you've started?
One of our other core values is innovation, and we always think that the envelope can be pushed further. VisionSpring is our primary glasses distribution partner. We work with other groups such as Community Enterprise Solutions, and they themselves are constantly innovating. VisionSpring recently developed a process in which they can bring precut lenses into the field and pop them directly into frames, which creates the ability to provide glasses on the spot in one visit. That's a really big innovation because it cuts down on the cost of having to visit a particular village twice. We're trying to do everything possible to help our nonprofit partners innovate. I've been talking to some folks at MIT who are developing a technology to do refractions out of your smartphone. That could be a game changer for our nonprofit partners. We're also one of the only carbon-neutral eyewear brands in the world.
We also are always trying to think, 'How can we do good?' 'How can we have a bigger impact?' I think that there are a lot of ways that we can have a positive impact that go beyond just getting glasses on people’s faces—we’re just getting started.
Read the full interview in Kern and Burn.
Image courtesy of Warby Parker