“Our Success means success for others around the world” Warby Parker is a design-world darling; it’s also a rising star in the world of social enterprise. After just two years in business, it has already impacted hundreds of thousands of lives with its buy-one-giveone business model for eyewear.
Glasses do more than just improve vision or help people look cool. According to Warby Parker, among bottom of the pyramid recipients, they can increase an individual’s productivity at work by 35 percent and boost their income 20 percent, a huge step toward escaping poverty. And the potential to scale this impact is enormous—almost a billion people across the planet are without access to glasses.
So for every pair of glasses it sells, Warby Parker provides one pair to someone in need. To date, the company has helped distribute over 100,000 pairs in emerging markets. And NYC fashionistas benefit too. For years, the optical industry, controlled by a few large companies, kept prices of glasses artificially high. By designing its own frames and working directly with manufacturers, the company circumvents traditional channels to drastically cut costs—its high-quality prescription eyewear is available for just $95.
So far, people have responded enthusiastically. To keep up with demand, the company hired more than 50 employees in its first 18 months. Warby Parker has also been recognized as a breakout company in publications such as Time, Entrepreneur Magazine and AdAge. It’s expanding into boutique shops across the United States and opened its very own storefront in New York.
So it can focus on managing its own rapid growth, Warby partners with innovative organizations such as the nonprofit VisionSpring to distribute its give-one glasses overseas. For example, Warby partners create micro-franchise opportunities for entrepreneurs in emerging markets to sell Warby glasses as affordable prices. “Our partners are helping create jobs, and our glasses are great tools at alleviating poverty,” said Lane Wood, Director of Social Innovation. The company works to empower its nonprofit partners across multiple fronts. In addition to financial support, Warby Parker staff help the organizations with website design, social media strategy, and public relations. Their stronger partners can then operate more effectively and help more people.
Expanding into boutiques across the United States, creating new frames, and fostering exciting collaborations with designers and nonprofits, Warby Parker is positioned to explode. And others think so too. Warby is backed by mainstream venture capital, and insists that “as we scale and sell more glasses, we will maintain our model of buy a pair and give a pair,” Wood said. “We have a commitment that our success means success for others around the world.”
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“We believe that higher education has a really high payoff and high return on investment for both the individual and society,” Leviner said. “It should be available to everyone who is qualified.”
A student works hard, earns good grades and is accepted to the college of her dreams. However, even after federal aid, which tops out at $25,000 over four years, large tuition payments still remain. For many low-income students, finding loans to cover the rest of the costs may be a challenge, as most lenders require a creditworthy co-signer. But financial background isn’t necessarily an indicator of a student’s potential—that’s where Lumni USA comes in. The company finances students based on merit and their potential chance of future success.
“It’s incredible when you look at somebody and it’s just so clear: they have all the tools for success on the personal level—all they really need is someone to believe in them and invest in their future,” Noga Leviner, CEO of Lumni USA, said. “We look at those students and see them as an asset, rather than a burden on our society.”
According to Leviner, there’s a $30 billion annual funding gap faced by qualified undergraduate students who stand a good chance of graduating and going on to successful careers. Research by one student suggests that lack of funding will prevent 5 million students from receiving their bachelor’s degrees in the next decade alone.
Lumni USA provides a financing mechanism to pay for higher education in a way that is sustainable, scaleable and student-friendly. Loans are repaid with a set percentage of future income over a given period of time. This model eliminates the threat of unaffordable loan payments and makes higher education accessible to those traditional financing neglects. Students also receive additional training and resources to support career development and help them maximize their potential.
Lumni USA is part of the growing family of Lumni companies; the financial service company also operates in Chile, Columbia, and Mexico. In 2008, Lumni USA was formed to bring the innovative model to students in the United States. The company received B Corp Certification in 2011 and, despite daunting regulatory challenges, financed its first class of 30 students. Two-thirds of its students are low-income, two-thirds from under-served minorities, and two-thirds are first-generation college attendees.
“We are transforming the lives of students that otherwise might not get an opportunity to go to college and have a successful bright future,” said Leviner. “There doesn’t have to be a tradeoff between providing students with a fair, flexible financial product and giving our investors a solid investment opportunity.”
Lumni’s business model has the potential to transform the field of education financing. As Lumni scales, it can assist millions of students. Over the last five years, it expanded from $1.5 million in assets under management to $25 million, reaching 2,500 students globally in 2011.
Leviner believes Lumni’s impact can only continue to grow. “Given the need for a more rational market for investing in human capital, the sky’s the limit for how far we can take this,” she said.
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