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Seeing the Bigger Picture: A Conversation With Neil Blumenthal

The cofounder and co-CEO of Warby Parker shares how his eyewear and lifestyle brand is aiming to transform the optical industry and do good in the world.

Neil Blumenthal

Warby Parker is an eyewear/lifestyle brand with a vision: to radically transform the optical industry while making a profit and doing good in the world.

Founded in February 2010 by Neil Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, Jeff Raider, and Andy Hunt, the company offers trendy lenses for spectacle lovers with a philanthropic perk: For every pair of glasses sold, Warby Parker partners with nonprofits like VisionSpring to ensure a pair is distributed to someone in need.

While Warby Parker’s styles caught our eye, their mission captured our hearts. Cofounder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal shares some of the important lessons he’s learned from life and business.

Experience Life | What’s the story behind Warby Parker’s visionary business model?

Neil Blumenthal | The idea for Warby Parker was sparked when my cofounder Dave Gilboa lost a pair of glasses while we were classmates at business school. Rather than pony up $700 for a new pair, he spent a semester stewing over the problem and occasionally complaining to Jeff Raider, Andy Hunt, and me over beers at a local pub. We all agreed that glasses were outrageously expensive; the question was whether we might be able to tackle the problem ourselves by offering an alternative to the overpriced eyewear on the market.

Before enrolling in business school, I’d spent time working as director of a nonprofit called VisionSpring, which focused on training women in developing countries to give eye exams and sell affordable glasses to members of their community. Glasses are an amazingly effective intervention in low-income communities; a single pair of glasses can increase an individual’s productivity by 35 percent and her earning power by 20 percent. I also knew firsthand from this experience that it was possible to manufacture high-quality glasses for nonoutrageous prices.

Over many brainstorming sessions, my three cofounders and I came up with the idea for Warby Parker: a brand that would offer beautiful eyewear at a fraction of the going rate by selling direct to consumers, while also distributing a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair sold.

EL | I read that Warby Parker’s motto is “It’s not about making more, it’s about doing more.” How did you come to that philosophy?

NB | We started Warby Parker with the goal of launching a business that would be a force for good in the world — a company that could solve problems rather than create them. My cofounders and I arrived at this philosophy as a result of our shared values and our previous experiences in many fields, from the world of nonprofit work to the world of bioengineering. One of the things we’re proudest of is the fact that we’ve distributed more than 1 million pairs of glasses to people who need them through our “Buy a Pair/Give a Pair” program. I believe that companies will be held to increasingly high standards of social responsibility, and as founders, we’ve tried to lay the groundwork for Warby Parker as thoughtfully as possible.

EL | Warby Parker set out to revolutionize the eyewear industry and has a bit of a revolutionary business model. How about corporate culture? What’s it like to work at Warby Parker? Do you have wellness, leadership, or mindfulness programs?

NB | My cofounder Dave Gilboa and I spend a great deal of time thinking about how to foster a corporate culture that exemplifies the Warby Parker core values. Along with different kinds of training programs — everything from leadership training to Hackathons to coding workshops — we host readings and Q&As, screen movies, host costume contests, coordinate volunteering trips, and encourage employees to invent new ways of interacting with the community.

One time, a hypnotherapist visited the office to instruct us on mindfulness. One team hosted an “exotic fruit taste-test.” Many teams worked on construction efforts in the years following Hurricane Sandy.

Our ultimate aim is to create an environment where employees are constantly stimulating their minds, picking up new skills, and nurturing their curiosity. And, of course, company culture is always a work in progress. It’s exciting to see how the team grows together.

EL | What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in life and business?

NB | Politeness counts. Always. (Hat-tip to my parents for drilling this into me. They were right.)

EL | You’ve helped create miracles for others by the choices you’ve made personally and professionally. How do you think people can create miracles in their own lives and businesses?

NB |“Miracle” is a high bar to clear, but a simple lesson for life and business is to treat others the way they want to be treated. Empathy is a practice that you can always be developing in yourself — and in your work.

You can find Warby Parker at www.warbyparker.com, on Twitter and Instagram at @WarbyParker, or in one of their retail locations across the United States.

Heidi Wachter is a staff writer for Experience Life.

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