Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vision(ary) Entrepreneur

Vision(ary) Entrepreneur

Here's the basic formula for entrepreneurship: Understand a problem, grasp its full context, connect previously unconnected dots, and have the vision, courage, resourcefulness, and persistence to see the solution through to fruition.

Case in point...

Today, over 400 million people worldwide live in poverty. Most depend on the use of their hands and their eyesight to provide for themselves and their families. As they age, near-sightedness threatens their livelihoods. For more than 40% of these people, a pair of over-the-counter glasses sold in any Western drugstore would substantially increase their productivity and quality of life. But many people don't have access to these eyeglasses.

During dozens of medical missions to the developing world, Dr. Jordan Kassalow, a practicing optometrist and public health expert, saw the problem firsthand. It was obvious that scores of near-sighted people languishing in poverty needed glasses. But Dr. Kassalow also realized that if a member of a community had the right tools and skills as well as access to inexpensive glasses in a range of standard prescriptions, he or she could become that community's optometrist.

That's a classic "win-win": motivated workers gain access to a promising entrepreneurial opportunity (paying twice the wages of typical local jobs), and their customers get inexpensive, yet potentially life-transforming eyeglasses. Dr. Kassalow saw the problem, understood the context, and connected the dots. He founded the Scojo Foundation, now called VisionSpring; its mission is to "reduce poverty and generate opportunity in the developing world through the sale of affordable eyeglasses."

With seed capital from George Soros's Open Society Institute, VisionSpring launched a pilot program in India. Additional support came from a high-end reading glasses company that Kassalow and his business partner, Scott Bernie, started, which donated 5% of its pre-tax profits to the endeavor. As the for-profit organization grew, so did the non-profit.

Today, VisionSpring operates in 13 countries and has trained over 1,200 "vision entrepreneurs" who have in turn sold over 100,000 pairs of glasses in communities with an average daily income between $1 and $4. In 2007, the group also committed to tripling its impact in three years as part of the Clinton Global Initiative. But how?

One of Kassalow's strategies for growth involves an innovative franchise operation in which more than 30 non-governmental partners are plugging the "Vision Entrepreneur" program into their existing economic development activities, reducing VisionSpring's need to build out costly infrastructure.

VisionSpring also launched a five-year, $5 million initiative to build a fully sustainable enterprise, dramatically reducing its ongoing fundraising burdens. (Incidentally, this strategy is becoming increasingly popular among rapidly scaling social enterprises such as College Summit.)

In retrospect, it all seems so obvious and elegantly simple. If one man armed only with eyeglasses and an innovative plan can change so many lives, what other exciting opportunities are out there -- and who's next?

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