Insights from Neil Blumenthal (CEO, Warby Parker) and Jon Gray (President & COO, Blackstone Group)
By: Annie Wang
I come from a household of 6 people and 22 eyes - everyone in my immediate family, except my youngest 4 year-old sister, wears glasses. Growing up, my frames were usually purchased from the optometrist office and had price tags in the hundreds; they were easily the most expensive thing I wore. I am fortunate enough that my parents’ company insurance covered lenses and frames, but not everyone with impaired vision has that access to care.
Early in college, a friend told me about Warby Parker. They sell thoughtfully designed prescription glasses and cultivate a business model that donates glasses and eye-exam training to communities in need. This company rejects the notion that you have to get really rich first before giving back. They are often cited as a visionary (haha, get it?) brand making social impact while achieving financial success.
This past Friday November 8th, my teammates, Julie, Jolee, and I found ourselves a few feet away from Neil Blumenthal himself, the co-founder and CEO of Warby Parker! He was joined on stage by Jon Gray, the President and Chief Operating Officer of Blackstone, for the Keynote address on Day 2 of Blackstone Launchpad Propel. This student entrepreneurship conference was hosted by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, and we had been fortunately selected as one of the UC Davis student teams to attend.
Since 2018, Julie, Jolee, and I have been working on Sorbit - a project seeking solutions for the waste generated by disposable diapers. We came to Launchpad to learn from mentors and connect with student entrepreneurs from around the country. We founded our company based on wanting to enable environmental sustainability and were especially curious about how to translate social impact into a viable business.
From Neil and Jon’s discussion, we learned some good points:
Keep your eyes on your values.
Decide on and act from your values from the beginning. One of the fellow students in the audience asked, “how do you scale up vision?” (pun unintended, I think) meaning, how do you make sure the passion and cause behind why a company was started is sustained when it grows in size? Neil emphasized the importance of defining values from the beginning, especially if you want to give back to the community in some way. By integrating the social impact goal(s) into the foundation of the business’s identity, even as the people in the company inevitably shift over time, the company’s actions will continue to be measured by that goal.
Values can be fun too. Another example that Neil provided is Warby Parker’s value of injecting fun and quirkiness in all they do. For example, instead of the classic office Christmas party, the employees dress up for a yearly, costume-filled Halloween Party!
Cultivate a people centered frame-work.
If you are building a team, make sure people are in positions and given opportunities to grow. If you are developing a product or service, ask people what they want. For example, although they weren’t the first company to provide online retail for glasses, Warby Parker made it much more attractive by identifying the factors prevented online orders. They conducted surveys and found that a main reason deterring people was the ability to try the frames on. This informed Warby Parker’s iconic free try-on-at-home program!
Jon also spoke about the value of the people who support you in your own life. Life and work are hard! And going through the mountains and valleys with friends and family is infinitely more rewarding and sustainably then going it alone.
In closing, hopefully this didn’t feel like too much a Warby Parker advertisement,I swear we were not sponsored! (although if I were offered some free glasses, I definitely wouldn’t reject). For Sorbit, our first iteration of a solution to diaper waste was a prototype of a biodegradable diaper. We envisioned a circular life cycle in which materials could be sourced from agricultural waste and composted after use.
However, as we evaluate the limitations of our undergraduate technical expertise and continue talking to parents, we are noticing other pain points that could be solved with something other than a physical product. Some parents have talked about how it feels pointless to even invest in biodegradable products since the waste management system is set-up so that most things go to landfill anyway. Other parents have noted factors for using cloth diapers, like hard water, access to a washer or dryer in an apartment complex, or what types of products daycares will accept.
With these thoughts in mind, we will continue to define our values and base our endeavors on human experience. W could say more about our time in New York and we’d be happy to answer questions if you are curious! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to connect and thank you for reading. Enjoy some extra snapshots below :)
Thank you UC Davis Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Blackstone, and Technstars for this opportunity.
UC Davis Design and Honors programs, along with TEAM Lab were granted Runner Up and community choice by CORE77, in Design Education Initiative category.
UC Davis design history professor, Christina Cogdell started the Biodesign Challenge class in 2018, during which she co-taught with biomedical engineering faculty member Marc Facciotti. It is a two-quarter class for students across design, bioscience and engineering to collaborate and compete in the internal biodesign challenge. The winning team would represent the school to compete at Biodesign Challenge in NYC. During the first quarter, students studied the fundamentals of bacteria cellulose. In the next quarter, students got into multidisciplinary teams of three or four to experiment and make a prototype.
“Having students or employees from different disciplinary backgrounds work closely and rapidly together on innovation is efficient, effective, engaging, and energizing for a number of reasons,” Cogdell wrote in her CORE77 entry. In the past, few design students had access to work in labs and work with living organisms, while few bioscience or engineering students were introduced design thinking or conducted user interviews.
We look forward to the next Biodesign Challenge, and the new technology this industry will bring.
On December 4th, our team competed in the first round of the UC Davis Little Bang business competition! We got some good feedback from judges and spectators including recommendations for future areas of research and several people who shared their frustration with wanting to be sustainable in raising their baby but cloth diapers being way too difficult.
And of course, we had to top off the night with In n' Out!
We had the exciting honor of representing UC Davis and presenting our vision for biodegradable diapers, and a less wasteful future at the 2018 Biodesign Challenge in New York City. It was a fabulous time connecting with and being inspired by the emerging bio/design community -- and exploring the city. More information about the Challenge is found on the BDC website, a recorded livestream of our presentation is on Youtube, along with the other finalists' talks, and some of our favorite memories are shared below, enjoy!
June 14, 2018
After finishing up finals week as students and professors, we powered through several hours of presentation rehearsal before submitting our materials to the BDC organizers. We are so grateful to have mentors like Marc and Christina who not only give us detailed pointers and feedback on our public speaking and slide designs, but also share a healthy appreciation for late night In N' Out!
June 18, 2018
recharging after our cross country flight at Battery Park where we spotted and plopped down in the Fleurt chairs, a clever design example featured in UC Davis Professor Housefield's Introduction to Design class.
June 19, 2018
Armed with our poster, bacterial cellulose sheets, display cases, aerogel samples, and teddy bear diaper model/mascot we trekked to Parson's...
...set up our interactive display showcasing our design process and concept
...and explored in the city that afternoon and evening!
(Cue the Alicia Keys)
June 20, 2018
June 20, 2018
One of many, many presentation run-throughs, featuring makeshift air freshener and lint roller microphones
June 21, 2018 - Summit Day 1
Looking snazzy and feeling excited on the subway to Parsons for Summit Day 1: team presentations during the day, gallery showcase of projects the judges and public in the evening.
June 22, 2018 - Summit Day 2
We are so grateful for this opportunity to explore this exciting topic and were honored to be named Finalists and to be ultimately awarded Overall Runner Up and Outstanding Science!
...and we can never thank our mentors enough :)
Here we are with the Overall Grand Prize from Canada! They proposed personal, compostable mushroom mycelium toilets, targeted for improving privacy, hygiene, and soil quality in refugee camps. (Poop teams for the win)
June 23, 2018
Sporting some newly acquired banana tees as we flew back West and said our good-byes at the Sacramento airport, the gals of Sorbit prove that the fruit theme never stops with this team. Until next time NYC and BDC!