Eyewear Designer Warby Parker Gives Sight to World's Poor

PHOTO: Founders of Warby Parker work with a non-profit to help bring glasses and eye exams to needy people around the world.
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Warby Parker may be known for its designer eyewear, but co-founder Neil Blumenthal said the original motivation for the company came far from any fashion runways.

There are over 500 million people who could have their vision restored with a pair of glasses, so Blumenthal, along with his business school friend David Gilboa, set out to perfect pupils around the world.

"It didn't quite make sense to us that glasses cost as much as an iPhone," Blumenthal said. "And could we produce the same quality glasses for a fraction of the price?"

The duo, along with two other business school buddies, launched Warby Parker and ended up blowing the whistle on high mark-ups at other optical shops.

"An optical shop often is marking up glasses three to five times what they're paying for wholesale," Blumenthal said.

While most companies charge at least $300 a pair, Warby Parker charges $95 for new glasses. Blumenthal said they "bypass the middle man" to keep prices down.

"When we're looking at this industry, we found that it was controlled by a few, very large companies," he said. "And we could literally provide all that margin that was going to these big companies to normal people."

And they didn't stop there -- for every pair a customer buys, another pair goes to a person in need. When they took a trip to India, Blumenthal said they talked with two farmers who told how they had lost an entire crop because they couldn't see the insects eating their plants, yet they had the proper pesticides on their land. Their poor vision devastated their income for several months.

"It's just amazing what a simple pair of glasses can do," he said. "Just a pair of glasses alone can increase someone's income by 20 percent."

Blumenthal had spent time working for Vision Spring, a nonprofit organization that trains people in developing countries, where eyeglasses are a luxury, on how to perform eye exams and make lenses.

"I spent five years pioneering this model to train low-income women to start their own businesses actually selling glasses in their communities, even if it was for a few dollars," he said.

From India to Guatemala, these locally-trained entrepreneurs can be seen on mobile units, providing eye exams and glasses door to door.

Blumenthal and Gilboa realized something else -- that people want to look good too.

"Fashion differs from community to community and fashion is king," Blumenthal said. "You could be the poorest person on Earth, but you still care about how you look."

Warby Parker also designs frames according to local trends.

"In places like India and Bangladesh, people love gold-wired frames," Blumenthal said. "Probably couldn't sell those in SoHo."

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