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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

2020 vision: Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal discusses brand’s civic engagement, new store opening

Preserving financial accessibility and a people-first mindset is paramount for Neil Blumenthal, a Tufts alumnus who co-founded the high-quality and fashionable eyeglasses company, Warby Parker. Blumenthal graduated from Tufts in 2002 with degrees in international relations and history. 

Blumenthal is currently occupied with the newest Warby Parker store opening, the company’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming election. Featuring a custom-built bike rack shaped as glasses, the store is now open at The Street Chestnut Hill in Newton.

Blumenthal’s interest in civic engagement has shaped Warby Parker as a business: The companyrecently partnered with Vote 411, a nationwide voter information site launched by the League of Women Voters, as part of an initiative to ensure customers are knowledgeable about their registration status and informed about the upcoming election. 

“Civic engagement has always been one of Warby Parker’s social impact pillars, and the biggest part of civic engagement is voting,” Blumenthal said. “[With] the absence of state or national action to make Election Day a holiday … businesses have to step up and help.” 

Customers can check their registration status through QR codes in Warby Parker stores and find relevant voter information for their state. 

The company implemented a number of measures for employees as well, includingpaid time off to vote on Election Day and easily accessible resources about registration and absentee ballot deadlines. It has also encouraged employees to use paid volunteer hours to work as poll workers. 

Warby Parker has taken on a number of longer-standing civic initiatives as well, such as its “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” program, which has distributed overseven million pairs of glasses across the globe to those who face financial or accessibility challenges.

Blumenthal attributed the growth and success of the company, which was valued at $1.75 billion in2018, to what he calls “the basics”: providing fair prices to customers and a fulfilling environment for employees. He compared other high-quality glasses prices to those of Warby Parker.

“[We] provide great value to customers, which is good quality at a fair price ... $95 prescription glasses instead of $400 glasses,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal believes these ideals are fundamental to the retention of customers and employees. He noted that on top of offering affordable prices, Warby Parker prioritizes customer service and employee safety, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We ensure social distancing within the stores,” Blumenthal said. “We’re sanitizing frames before and after any customers touch those frames, and we’ve created contactless payment features.” 

Blumenthal said the company began discussing potential COVID-19 precautions and preparations in late 2019 and was one of the first national retailers in the country to close due to the pandemic.

“At the time, we really viewed it as a supply chain risk because we do some of our frame manufacturing in Italy and China and Japan,” he said. “Once it started to become more of a health risk for our customers and our employees, we continued to communicate to our team what was going on.” 

Blumenthal hosted “fireside chats” between his employees and health experts — including an epidemiologist the company hired. Blumenthal hoped these conversations would allow employees to gain a deeper understanding of the virus’ transmission and the needed precautions for employees to protect themselves and others. 

Blumethal described how his Tufts education shaped Warby Parker’s past and current initiatives and his overall career in business. He attributed his entrepreneurial mindset in part to his Tufts experiences.

“When you think about entrepreneurship or business more broadly, it’s really about problem-solving, and I learned a lot of that at Tufts,” he said.

Blumenthal also reflected on his experiences with Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership and the Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship program: a year-long, in-depth course that allows for students to explore critical thinking and effective leadership within a global context. 

Blumenthal believes successful entrepreneurship is misrepresented in today’s culture.

“There’s this myth that most entrepreneurs come up with their business in their dorm room where it's actually quite the opposite. The majority of entrepreneurs in America are in their 30s or 40s, versus their 20s,” he said. “While I'm obviously a big proponent for entrepreneurship, part of my advice to college students and recent grads would also be, don't feel like you have to rush into entrepreneurship.”

According to Blumenthal, success instead hinges on self-awareness and knowledge of one’s strengths, weaknesses and passions. He described the importance of character in this process. 

“[Successful people] tend to be givers versus takers,” Blumenthal said. “The type of person whose friend calls them for advice and their friends know that they're super reliable. They go out of their way to help others succeed.”