Warby Parker Co-CEO Neil Blumenthal Reflects on Eyewear Success

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WHYY Assistant News Director Katie Colaneri and Neil Blumenthal
WHYY Assistant News Director Katie Colaneri conducts a Q&A with Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal. (Eric Schucht)

What struck Neil Blumenthal most about Israel was the size. In high school, he got the chance to visit the New Jersey-sized nation, an experience that left a great impact on the young teen.

“I was in a program where were able to go all across the country,” Blumenthal said. “And going to the Golan Heights and learning about the several wars that were fought, you really get a feeling of real-life foreign policy.”

Blumenthal developed a passion for international relations, which had a direct impact on Warby Parker, the eyewear brand he co-founded and serves as its co-CEO. Warby Parker was one of the first major sellers of designer eyewear online and runs a charitable buy-a-pair/give-a-pair program as part of its business model. Since 2010, more than 5 million pairs of glasses have been given away.

Blumenthal recalled his career path at the sixth installment of the National Museum of American Jewish History’s Dreamers and Doers speaker series on May 15. Blumenthal talked about growing up in Greenwich Village as the only child of a nurse mother and accountant father. He also spoke of his maternal grandfather smuggling guns out of the U.S. to be shipped to Palestine for Israeli forces.

“A lot of this we didn’t find out until he passed away,” Blumenthal said. “What he was doing was technically illegal, but literally, the basement of his store was collecting any kind of guns or ammunition that they could send over that was actually used in the war for independence and the creation of the state of Israel.”

After his trip to Israel, his newfound passion led him to Tufts University, where he double majored in history and international relations. From there, he went on to graduate-level work in The Hague, Netherlands.

After working for a think tank for a bit, a chance encounter changed Blumenthal’s career path forever. A family friend introduced him to her optometrist, Jordan Kassalow, who was founding a nonprofit called VisionSpring. Kassalow had the idea to train low-income women to start their own businesses selling affordable eyeglasses to people in rural communities in South Asia, Africa and Latin America. Blumenthal was brought on to work in El Salvador on the pilot program.

“All this research shows that when women have access to capital, they tend to use it on the health and education of their children,” Blumenthal said. “So you have this great multiplier effect.”

Blumenthal wanted to improve as a leader, so he enrolled in the MBA program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he met his future business partners, Jeffrey Raider, Andrew Hunt and David Gilboa.

After Blumenthal complained to Gilboa about accidentally leaving a $700 pair of glasses in the seat pocket of an airplane, the group began brainstorming ideas for an online glasses retailer.

The team spent 18 months developing the business model. The plan was to ship customers five pairs of glasses to try on for five days, then send back the ones they didn’t want. Blumenthal said the hardest part was picking the name. In six months, they went through more than 2,500 names.

One day, Gilboa happened to be walking by the New York Public Library, where an exhibit on writer Jack Kerouac was on display. Two of the characters from his early stories were named Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker. The team surveyed 1,000 people and found an overwhelmingly neutral or positive response for Warby Parker, with no current associations. Blumenthal described it as a blank canvas for building a new brand.

Warby Parker blew up in popularity. GQ called it “The Netflix of Eyewear.” Now, in addition to the phenomenally popular online business, there are 92 brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S. and Canada.

Today, Warby Parker is the biggest contributor to VisionSpring. The company donates to the nonprofit monthly, having an agreement to give a minimum donation each year so they can properly budget. So far, Blumenthal said they’ve given close to $300 million.

Blumenthal said his Jewish upbringing played a part in who he is today.

“When I think of Judaism, I think of values,” Blumenthal said. “I think of values that have driven me around entrepreneurship, around giving back, a good friend, partner member of the community.”

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