From Boston to El Salvador, working for NGOs, think tanks and now as co-founder and co-CEO of eyeglasses company Warby Parker, Neil Blumenthal has pivoted his career several times, while pursuing a greater purpose and mission of making the world a better place. At Mashable’s Social Good Summit, I had the chance to speak with Neil about his advice for young people entering the work force today and looking to make a difference.
The Daily Beast: Tell me about your journey from VisionSpring to Warby Parker.
Neil Blumenthal: So the quick journey is, I went to Tufts University, studied international relations and history and was really passionate about foreign policy. When I graduated, I didn't know what I wanted to do, and so I did what a lot of people do, and just kept going to school. I moved to the Netherlands and studied international mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution, and then went to work at a think tank that came up with policy. My work at the think tank was intellectually stimulating, but it wasn't that rewarding because ultimately, you come up with ideas, but you have to advocate them to the government representatives who have power. I wanted to do something where I had my hands dirty, and ended up getting into international development.
I met a really dynamic doctor, Jordan Kassalow from VisionSpring, who had an idea to train low-income women to start their own businesses selling glasses in the developing world. I was shocked to learn that close to one billion people on the planet need glasses. I thought that the solution to train people to start their own businesses made a lot of sense, because you create jobs which is the most important thing—because then people have money to do things like buy glasses. Many studies have shown that when women have access and capital, they use it on the health and education of their children, so you have this great multiplier effect where the impact was potentially massive.
I moved down to El Salvador to work for the nonprofit VisionSpring. I ended up spending five years at VisionSpring, became its Director, learned a lot about how glasses were manufactured, how they were distributed, and expanded into different countries.
When my learning curve started to plateau I decided to go to business school, where I met Jeff, Andy and Dave, and we came up for the idea of Warby Parker, and it has just been this amazing ride. We launched February 2010, a little over three years ago, we now have 300 employees, and we are trying to sell glasses for a fraction of what they typically cost. Instead of selling glasses for $400 dollars, we sell them for $95, and for every pair that we sell, we distribute one to some one in need, through VisionSpring.
What advice do you have for young people who want to make a difference and don’t know what sectors to delve into? What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
I believe that anyone can be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is problem-solving, and the beauty that young people have is the ability to see things with fresh eyes. There is a Buddhist saying that "look at some thing with a beginner's mindset," because if you're an expert, sometimes your vision is clouded. Approach every frustration and every challenge, and just think: “Is there some solution here?” Solving the problem doesn't have anything to do with the legal entity—nonprofit or for profit. You figure out which legal entity you are, once you figure out what that solution is.
Any further advice for millennials or seasoned entrepreneurs?
Discover what you are passionate about. That sounds a lot easier than it is to do. Discovering what you don't like is just as important as figuring out what you do like. At different points in your life, when it feels like you are making major decisions, or you feel like you are about to jump off a cliff, at those moments, take a step back and try to break that decision down into smaller parts and baby steps to make incremental change. That approach works for major life decisions, it works from a project management perspective and when trying to start a business as well.