If you’re one of the 150 million Americans who wear some sort of corrective eyewear, you already know an unfortunate truth about shopping for specs: Glasses, particularly fashionable ones, don’t usually come cheap.
Frustration with the traditional glasses industry’s byzantine business plan led a band of four former business students from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — Jeff Raider, Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt and David Gilboa — to found Warby Parker, a brand that seeks to make affordable, high-quality blinkers for the masses. The name is a combination of two characters’ names in one of Jack Kerouac’s journals.
Since Warby Parker began hawking sleek frames over the Internet in 2010, the company has become shorthand for a certain model of commerce, one that cuts out the middleman to sell stylish goods directly to consumers. Part of that design is Warby Parker’s program of donating a pair of eyeglasses for every one that it sells. It’s a strategy that’s clever as well as generous: It marks Warby Parker not simply as a discount company, but also as being concerned with the good of the glasses-wearing community.
The charitable end of the company was cooked up by co-founder Blumenthal. Before meeting the rest of the Warby Parker crew at Wharton, Blumenthal, who is Jewish, studied international relations at Tufts University. After graduating, he attended the Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution in The Hague, Netherlands.
Blumenthal then went on to work as director of VisionSpring, an organization dedicated to providing prescription glasses to people in countries like India and El Salvador. VisionSpring is now Warby Parker’s biggest partner; it trains members of low-income communities to sell affordable glasses, creating jobs at the same time it distributes much-needed eyewear. It’s this aspect of Warby Parker that makes it different from an organization like Tom’s, which gives away a pair of shoes for every one purchased. The glasses become part of the economic infrastructure of an impoverished neighborhood.
“Dropping a shipment of a product into a place can destroy local businesses. You’re effectively dumping on the market,” Blumenthal explained, arguing that using the glasses to create an economic incentive is a more effective system. “By selling something to someone, you’re actually designing for them. They’re value conscious consumers. Even the poorest people would rather be blind than wear a pair of 1970s cat eye glasses.”