Warby Parker uses ‘buy one, donate one’ model to benefit under-served

Gerald Rich

A good pair of specs is hard to find. The most stylish ones are too expensive, and the dirt cheap ones are horrible.

It’s with this dilemma in mind that Warby Parker tries to offer up a quality, stylish pair for less while also helping those who can’t afford expensive glasses by donating a pair for every pair purchased.

Inspired by the famous Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, specifically the characters Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker from one of his unpublished journals, four friends — and current UT MBA students — decided to harken back to their liberal-arts roots with their first collection of 27 designs and one monocle.

“I think glasses are meant to be part of someone’s identity, and that’s why we want it to be a much lower cost,” said Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of Warby Parker. “People have multiple moods, and they should have glasses for each of them if they want, even if it’s a monocle.”

Thick, squarish frames, as well as dark neutrals or bright colors inspired by eyewear from the ’50s and ’60s, give off the look of a distinguished guy or girl. Even the names of the glasses, like Roark from “The Fountainhead” and Huxley after Aldous Huxley, fit in with Austin’s vintage-chic culture.

But, it’s not all about looking suave.

“These are literally the tools to see and work,” Blumenthal said. “Imagine the tailor who can’t thread a needle or a farmer who can’t separate seeds to plant. Glasses have a major impact on workers’ ability to provide for a family and increase the prosperity of a community.”

Blumenthal originally worked with VisionSpring, another philanthropic eyewear group, before deciding to use his experience to shape Warby Parker into a fashionably and socially conscious company. His business model is similar to that of Tom’s Shoes, where customers buy one pair of shoes and donate another style.

“A lot of student projects are now taking that buy one, give one model and using [it] for consumer products and services as well,” said Heather Alden, senior program coordinator at RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service. “In the entrepreneurial space, there’s always a lot of copycatting when someone does great with an idea. Tom’s Shoes isn’t the first one to use this model, but he’s definitely done a great job.”

Although some of their designs have already sold out, Warby Parker plans to restock their supplies sometime in May and will release their new collection later in the fall.

Currently, the company helps the nonprofit organization Restore Vision to supply glasses to 10 countries, primarily in Africa, but also to countries in South Asia and Latin America and to lower-income neighborhoods in the U.S.

“If you look at our backgrounds and undergraduate degrees, it’s all about the social aspect,” Blumenthal said, “And [Warby Parker] marries that with the market to create positive change.”