Warby Parker's High-Class Problem
It appears you can have too much of a good thing. Anjali Kumar, General Counsel and Head of Social Innovation at Warby Parker, said in a recent interview with the Yale School of Management that the eyeglass retailer's rapid growth could cause problems for nonprofit partners of the company's charitable "Buy a pair, Give a pair" program.
In answer to a question about how the company plans to scale the program "with integrity," Kumar said:
"Well, it's an ongoing challenge. We are conscious of the fact that our growth...might outpace our nonprofit partners' ability to scale with us..We don't want to put pressure on our nonprofits to grow at a certain pace just to keep up with us."
"The challenge is how to continue to meet our social commitment of distributing eyeglasses to those in need in a sustainable way," she added. "There's clearly enough need--we haven't outpaced the need by any measure. But the distribution challenge in more rural, poor areas is a significant one. How do we actually find additional partners to execute that distribution in a responsible way?"
I reached out to Warby Parker hoping to interview Kumar about this. The company had not connected me with her by my deadline.
Still, I decided it would be fun and interesting to look into the scaling of other global distribution initiatives, to see how they worked, in terms of operations and design. Maybe, in so doing, I'd hit on a few potential solutions to Warby Parker's challenge. Here are two that I came up with:
1. Warby Parker could partner with a multinational business. Specifically, a business that has tackled the challenge of health product distribution in poor, rural areas. One business that comes to mind is Unilever, commonly known here in the U.S as the maker of popular consumer brands such as Dove, Vaseline, Ben & Jerry's, Lipton, and Ragu. They're kind of a big deal ($67.4 billion in 4th quarter revenues). And their sustainability efforts are award-winning.
Unilever routinely distributes health products in poor, rural areas. On their web site, they describe their efforts in India: "Shakti, our door-to-door selling operation in India, provides work for large numbers of people in poor rural communities. We will increase the number of Shakti entrepreneurs that we recruit, train and employ from 45,000 in 2010 to 75,000 in 2015. We operate similar schemes in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam which we are also committed to expanding."
On the importance of finding the right distribution partner, Warby Parker cofounder Neil Blumenthal has said: "We're also finding that [glasses vendors] are becoming pillars in their community, because someone who's able to distribute a health product like glasses is looked at very differently from somebody hocking Coca-Cola or something."
Most of Unilever's wares are closer to health products than they are to Coca-Cola. Which raises the question: Could Shakti entrepreneurs distribute glasses, too?
2. Warby Parker could seek the counsel of prominent academics and global NGOs. For an example of the NGO I have in mind, consider the Gates Foundation. Under the broad rubric of global health and development initiatives that the Gates Foundation is addressing, there's plenty of room for eyeware distribution--especially if the issue is framed as eyewear for children. Why not see what the Gates Foundation has to offer, in terms of counsel and, potentially, grant moneys?
The Gates Foundation is just one place Warby Parker could turn to. Famously, the four founders of Warby Parker are Wharton grads. Perhaps they can leverage those University of Pennsylvania connections to tap the collective knowledge of the School of Social Policy and Practice, which recently worked with the South Asia Center to organize a conference on Economics and Health Interventions in India.
Of course, I'm just thinking out loud. I'd be surprised if Kumar and the other leaders at Warby Parker haven't already considered, pursued, or passed on these options. In the months and years to come, I look forward to seeing how they address this important challenge.
This story was updated on Feb. 13, 2014 to better reflect Ms. Kumar's remarks at Yale and Warby Parker's response to our request for comment.
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