Warby Parker Co-Founder On the Next Generation of Social Entrepreneurship
As co-founder of eyewear startup Warby Parker, Neil Blumenthal is focused on getting the world to see more clearly. He also has a clear goal for the next generation of social entrepreneurs: he wants to see them fix government.
It may feel incongruous to direct entrepreneurs to the centers of regulation and bureaucratic quagmire, but that’s precisely the point. Imagine if a swarm of Neil Blumenthals did for governments around the world what Neil Blumenthal has done for the eyeglasses industry. The company he built, after all, sells glasses for $95 a pair, a fraction of the price of other stylish eyewear brands. And through its buy-one-give-one model, it has given more than 1 million pairs of eyeglasses to low-income people in need. It’s also rumored to be the next billion-dollar startup.
“Where we need innovation and where I think we are going to finally see social entrepreneurs spend more and more time is the public sector, because the big challenge that is facing every community on the planet is that government and public policy are not moving at the pace of technology or even meeting expectations of constituents,” says Blumenthal.
Fixing a broken ecosystem is what motivated Blumenthal and his partners to start Warby Parker. In their case, the target was the eyeglass industry, whose high markups were virtually inescapable. (Italian eyewear maker Luxxotica, which owns retailers Lenscrafters, Pearle Vision and Eyemed, as well as almost every glasses brand you’ve ever heard of, holds a near monopoly over the industry.)
The idea to create cheaper, trendy glasses took form years ago when Dave Gilboa, whom Blumenthal met at Wharton Business School, lost his glasses on a backpacking trip in Thailand. Because replacing them was so prohibitively expensive, he spent an entire semester without glasses. That was uncomfortable, unproductive, and left his friends with an earful of constant complaints.
Warby Parker was born out of a desire to solve this problem. Its founders went a step further and added a social component, donating money to nonprofits that distribute glasses to underserved populations.
Blumenthal wants social entrepreneurs to apply that same radical innovation to government. “Political processes aren’t built for experimentation, innovation. To some extent [government is] built to almost be conservative -- not conservative in terms of politics -- but to conserve and preserve the status quo. Government has always been a risk averse institution, as it should be,” says Blumenthal.
But cultural and technological developments are lapping government. And as a result, people are left underserved. For example, as more and more people move out of rural areas and into cities, the transportation infrastructures in cities are being stressed like never before. Blumenthal imagines a social entrepreneur developing a traffic monitoring app like Waze that would automatically direct commuters to the least congested route. "We need more products designed in the public interest that solve our day-to-day issues typically associated with government," he says.
Entrepreneurs and governmental agencies can cross-pollinate in a number of ways, as Blumenthal sees it. For example, social entrepreneurs can go work in the government for a stint. Or, social entrepreneurs might build their own independent enterprises working with governmental data. For example, Civic Hall is a co-working space in New York dedicated to helping entrepreneurs build social-minded businesses that solve public issues.
The key for aspiring social entrepreneurs is to look for a problem in the world -- preferably one that they understand well, Blumenthal says. In many ways, the Warby Parker model came out of his previous work at VisionSpring, a nonprofit that provides eyeglasses to the developing world.
“I had experience trying to help people buy glasses,” he says. “I had visited factories and learned how glasses were manufactured. I had people on the board of directors at VisionSpring that were business leaders within the eyewear space.”
In other words, his eyes were wide open. “Innovation doesn’t happen in isolation,” he says.
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Catherine Clifford is senior entrepreneurship writer at CNBC. She was formerly a senior writer at Entrepreneur.com, the small business reporter at CNNMoney and an assistant in the New York bureau for CNN. Clifford attended Columbia University where she earned a bachelor's degree. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @CatClifford.