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.