Warby Parker: Scale Up, Be Profitable, Do Good

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Warby Parker envisions a better world, one pair of glasses at a time

The summer after he graduated from college, Dave Gilboa lost his eyeglasses on a backpacking trip. He couldn’t afford to replace them, so in his first semester at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, he went without. He was miserable.

But he learned something. A classmate, Neil Blumenthal, had worked for VisionSpring, a nonprofit that provides low-cost glasses to poor people in underdeveloped countries. Blumenthal had seen firsthand how profound a difference a pair of eyeglasses could make to a person—and how cheaply they could be produced.

“Over 2.5 billion people around the world need glasses but don’t have access to them,” Blumenthal says. “Of these, 624 million cannot effectively learn or work because of their impairment.” In emerging and pre-emerging markets, a single pair of glasses can increase an individual’s productivity by up to 32 percent and their monthly income by up to 20 percent.

With $2,500 seed money from Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program, Gilboa, Blumenthal and two fellow MBA candidates founded Warby Parker “to demonstrate that a business can scale, be profitable and do good in the world—without charging a premium for it.”

The proof would lie in the two things for which Warby Parker is known best: the hypercompetitive price point of its glasses, which typically sell for under $100, and its “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” Program. For every pair of glasses or sunglasses sold, the company would distribute a pair of glasses to someone in need in more than 50 countries in the Americas, Africa and Asia. As of 2020, some 8 million pairs had been donated.

To be sure, Warby Parker doesn’t claim credit for originating the BOGO concept—as in “Buy one, give one.” TOMS shoes (profiled earlier this year in Brand Acts of Kindness) introduced it in 2006 and at least a score of companies have since adopted it. But we note that the idea was baked into Warby Parker’s business model and a pillar of its brand from the day the company was founded in 2010. (The company went public on September 29, 2021.) “Alleviating the problem of impaired vision is at the heart of what we do,” says Gilboa.

In implementing its BOGO program, Warby Parker has taken pains to avoid competing with small businesses and undermining job creation in local communities. Apart from providing glasses directly and free of cost to those in need, the company also trains and empowers local people to administer basic eye exams and sell glasses at ultra-affordable prices.

In March 2020, as the pandemic struck—and exactly one week after marking its 10th anniversary—Warby Parker shuttered all 120 of its stores across the U.S. and Canada. “It was a difficult but necessary decision,” says Gilboa. That April, the company pivoted a portion of its BOGO program to support the distribution of much-needed personal protective equipment through its partnership with VisionSpring. The donations are designed to protect healthcare workers and slow COVID-19 transmission in high-risk communities where they work—principally in India, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa.

“VisionSpring is leveraging its supply chain, community mobilizers, and network of hospitals and clinics to provide frontline healthcare workers with protective goggles, face shields, surgical masks and medical gowns,” according to the Warby Parker website. In addition, the company has funded the installation of handwashing stations and distributing hygiene kits to local households.

“We continue to support the distribution of glasses where possible without compromising the health of our partners and the community,” Gilboa says. Doing good in the world—that, Carpenter Group notes, is what the Warby Parker brand is about.

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About Brand Acts of Kindness® 

Brand Acts of Kindness® is a series from Carpenter Group that spotlights companies across industries that are living their brand values in addressing the unprecedented challenges facing the world today.

The series initially headlined companies assisting healthcare workers and first responders, as well as communities, businesses and families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We also highlight brands taking the lead in supporting social and racial justice, LGBTQ rights, sustainability and the environment. Their stories show how innovation, resolve and action, built on a solid value proposition, can both strengthen a brand and help create a better world.

About Carpenter Group

Carpenter Group is an independent, woman-owned strategic branding, messaging and marketing communications firm that has delivered results-driven solutions to financial, professional services and technology firms for 30+ years.

Our broad cross-discipline experience enables us to craft brand messaging and carry it through to the channels that most effectively connect with our clients’ target audience, from editorial content to advertising to event marketing and more.