Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal, A02, tells the Class of 2020 at their pandemic-delayed commencement that life paths are rarely linear—and that’s a good thing
Following a “non-linear path” in life, one with twists and turns, is “what makes life and work interesting and inspiring,” Neil Blumenthal, A02, co-founder and co-CEO of eyewear company Warby Parker, told members of the Class of 2020 on May 27 as Tufts held the graduates’ long-awaited commencement ceremony.
And while on that winding, bumpy road, embrace difficulties with an open and curious mind, urged Blumenthal.
“Ask yourself, ‘Am I challenging myself, or am I squandering energy on the wrong thing?’” he said. “What guides you? Hard questions yield easier answers more often than you think.”
Doing that will help uncover “what energizes you,” he said. “You might even find the sweet spot where your skillset and your passion overlap. That’s where impact lives. That’s where you can enact change.”
The advice to move courageously forward amid uncertainty stemmed from Blumenthal’s own experience as an untested, impassioned entrepreneur with a provocative idea that challenged traditional business models. That tale of disruption certainly resonated with the Class of 2020.
In the spring of their senior year, just as they were looking forward to celebrating graduation, the students had to abruptly leave campus in March 2020 as the lockdown began.
In May that year, Tufts held a virtual degree conferral ceremony, but promised to hold an in-person commencement celebration when it was safe to do so. The Class of 2020 came back in force this year, with more than 1,000 class members filling the Academic Quad, along with family, friends, and faculty.
“The fact that more than 1,000 graduates returned for this commencement is pretty strong evidence that this event is deeply important to them,” said James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “Commencements are joyous events, but this one is doubly so because it is also a reunion.”
From History Major to Business Leader
Blumenthal was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company. Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco lauded Blumenthal for using his education “to disrupt an industry and create positive change by improving vision access for people across the globe.”
Blumenthal graduated from Tufts in 2002 with a degree in history and international relations. He also met his wife, Rachel Blumenthal, A02, who is the founder and CEO of Rockets of Awesome, as an undergraduate.
At commencement he received an honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree, one of six individuals to receive honorary degrees.
It was at Tufts where, Blumenthal said, he “furthered a passion for giving back and helping those in need—a vital part of our mission at Warby Parker.”
He told how he met Jordan Kassalow, founder or VisionSpring, a nonprofit that helps low-income men and women sell affordable eyeglasses to people in need with limited access to eyecare. “The hope was to provide glasses while creating jobs in communities that needed them most,” he said.
Blumenthal worked for VisionSpring in El Salvador, learning as he went along. Later, while studying for his M.B.A. at Wharton Business School, he co-founded Warby Parker, which started as an online retailer of prescription glasses and expanded to widespread retail locations and to include contact lenses, eye exams and vision test services.
For every pair of Warby Parker glasses and sunglasses sold, too, another pair is distributed to someone in need, part of a program which has distributed more than 10 million pairs of glasses to date.
Blumenthal urged Class of 2020 to “understand that even when they are confused, uncertain, or feel stalled,” the non-linear path “does not prohibit big dreams.
“Start small and start with yourself,” he added. “Lead with optimism; don’t succumb to cynicism. Every day is an opportunity to make yourself better . . . to make the organizations you work for better and ultimately, to make the world better. In fact, it’s the only way to make the world better.”
In closing, he advised the Class of 2020 while on this windy road to “seek good will and dispense it” and to always “be kind, and lead with empathy. Treat others the way they want to be treated,” he said. “You never need a reason to be kind. Start with it. And lead with it.”
These past few years, he said, “have provided a stark reminder that we need each other. So let’s show up for one another.”
In addition to Blumenthal, other honorary degree recipients were: Lisa D. Cook, a professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University; Sandra Cotterell, chief executive officer of Codman Square Health Center, a community-based, outpatient health-care and multiservice center in Dorchester, Massachusetts; Ruth Moy, a community leader in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood and executive director the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center; James Stavridis, F83, F84, 16th NATO Supreme Allied Commander and former dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts; and Jonathan M. Tisch, A76, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels & Co., vice-chair emeritus of the Tufts board of trustees, and naming benefactor of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civil Life.