A Real Visionary

Cool specs for fashion-conscious customers, better eyesight for those in need
Neil Blumenthal in Warby Parker offices, New York City
Neil Blumenthal is on a mission to change the vision industry for consumers of all sorts. Photos by Alonso Nichols, Tufts Photo
February 7, 2011

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Eyeglasses as we know them have been around for more than 700 years. Yet thousands of people around the world still suffer from the correctable problem of not being able to see well. To Neil Blumenthal, A02, that just doesn't make sense. What also doesn't make sense to him is that fashionable, high-quality frames for glasses can cost as much as an iPhone. With his latest venture, he's addressing both these unfathomable realities at once.

The online eyeglass retailer Warby Parker, which he and his business partners launched last February, sells a variety of vintage-inspired frames for $95, with each purchase triggering the donation of a pair of glasses to someone who needs them. In less than a year, Warby Parker has distributed approximately 20,000 pairs of eyeglasses in 26 countries.

Blumenthal traces the evolution of his project to 2003, when he began working with VisionSpring, a nonprofit that trains low-income women around the world to sell eyeglasses to people in their community. That skill can get them jobs from which they can earn a decent income; meanwhile, the community as a whole benefits, because eyeglasses are "tools to see, which enables people to learn and increases their productivity dramatically," as Blumenthal explains.

"I hadn't been particularly passionate about women's empowerment or eye care, per se, but I thought the combination was particularly powerful," he says. "You're helping people in a way that is sustainable and grows the local economy. You aren't just providing foreign aid or handouts that can create a culture of dependency."

Part of the challenge Blumenthal saw upon joining the company was that the women selling the eyeglasses needed to act less like health advocates and more like businesspeople. "Where they did need expertise was in running a business and in marketing glasses to people who'd never worn glasses before," he says. For example, they needed to become good at convincing their customers that glasses would actually help them. The people in the communities often didn't realize that poor vision was at the root of many of their problems in earning a livelihood. Rather, they thought that their ability to do intricate work with their hands was impaired.

"If they were a weaver, they were selling lower-margin products rather than nicer ones. Or they would not work at dusk or dawn when there was low light because they couldn't see clearly," says Blumenthal. "They would have to walk into the street and wait for a little kid to pass by and ask them to thread a needle."

Seeing Things Through

During his five years at VisionSpring, Blumenthal helped expand the nonprofit's presence to 10 countries, supporting thousands of female entrepreneurs and boosting the organization's staff from two to 30. He then went to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to obtain his MBA and met the three classmates who would become his Warby Parker co-founders. Along the way, he also learned a bit about business from his wife, Rachel Bravman Blumenthal, A02, who runs the contemporary jewelry brand Rachel Leigh.

In launching Warby Parker (the name is inspired by two Jack Kerouac characters), Blumenthal and his partners focused on one thing they all had in common: glasses. The company's aesthetic, as Blumenthal describes it, is "based on frames we love and would wear, and for us that was very much a vintage-inspired look, classic American heritage"—you can even buy a monocle, if you want.

By designing eyewear in-house, cutting out licensing companies and optical shops and going directly to customers through the Internet, they found that they could sell stylish, vintage-inspired eyeglasses—made on the same manufacturing lines and from the same high-quality materials as major-brand eyewear—for less than $100. Customers can have glasses mailed to them so that they can try them on at home, or they can try them on virtually, through facial recognition software.

The business was an immediate success, earning accolades from GQ, Vogue and the trendsetting DailyCandy email newsletter and hitting first-year sales targets in three weeks. In fact, it was too successful-within four weeks: Warby Parker sold out of their top 15 styles and had a waiting list 20,000 names long. Soon enough, they worked out the kinks, and they have continued to grow, recently hiring their 15th employee.

Building off of Blumenthal's experience at VisionSpring, the company makes sure to responsibly distribute the glasses they donate. They work with nonprofit partners that give the glasses to female entrepreneurs, who in turn sell them in their communities for affordable prices.

Warby Parker has also marketed sunglasses to benefit causes, including breast cancer research and Invisible Children, an organization that helps rehabilitate former child soldiers in Uganda.

And Blumenthal notes that it's not just the average consumer who appreciates the fashion-forward flair of Warby Parker frames. "You could be in the poorest village on Earth," he says, "and there's still a sense of style."