A few years ago, Neil Blumenthal was annoyed after having paid hundreds of dollars for a new pair of glasses. So were his buddies Dave Gilboa, Andy Hunt and Jeff Raider at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. The men knew the eyewear industry was dominated by a handful of companies that kept prices artificially high. They also knew there must be a way to circumvent these businesses and create affordable eyewear for all.
And just like that, Warby Parker was born.
Launched in 2010 by co-founders Blumenthal, Gilboa, Hunt and Raider, Warby Parker aims to sell quality, stylish prescription glasses online for a fraction of the typical cost. According to a March 2012 Inc. interview, Blumenthal says the company sells $500 glasses for a modest $95. It's able to do so because the company designs and manufactures its own products.
But that's not all. For every pair purchased, the company distributes a free pair to someone in need by partnering with groups such as VisionSpring, a nonprofit that trains low-income women to create their own businesses selling inexpensive eyewear in developing countries. To date, the company's training has resulted in more than 1.6 million pairs of inexpensive eyeglasses being sold to low-income people across the globe.
Blumenthal worked at VisionSpring for five years before leaving to attend the University of Pennsylvania. It was there, working with VisionSpring founder Dr. Jordan Kassalow, that Blumenthal began learning about the problem of access to eyewear.
"Close to a billion people on Earth don't have access to glasses," Blumenthal said in the Inc. interview. "It seems crazy, right? The technology's been around about 700, 800 years. What are we doing that we're not able to provide glasses to about 15% of the world's population?"
Today, of course, Blumenthal and his friends are chipping away at that percentage through Warby Parker. "We ended up hitting our first year's sales targets in three weeks, which is, you know, nuts, and selling out of our top 15 styles in four weeks," he told Inc. By spring 2013, the fast-growing company had already distributed 500,000 free pairs of glasses to people in 36 countries, which the company says has had an estimated economic impact to date of more than $100 million, thanks to the recipients' increased productivity.
Because Warby Parker is revolutionizing the American eyewear industry, and VisionSpring is pushing the world to recognize the need for eyewear and eyewear markets in developing countries, the two are being jointly honored April 25 at the fifth annual Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards in New York. The awards recognize those whose creative ideas and strategies are having a major impact on the leaders in their field.
But Blumenthal stressed it's not just Warby Parker's affordable pricing -- or even its chic frame styles -- that's driving purchases. Rather, it's the company's drive to help everyone in the world see clearly that's resonating with customers.
See more about the winners and the 5th anniversary of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards on Morning Express with Robin Meade, starting Thursday, April 24, at 6 am ET.