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Prescriptions and Pride: VisionSpring's Journey to One Million

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The woman I met in Choco, Colombia, arrived by canoe. She had made the
trip down the
river to the village where I was working as a young optometry student
with a team of visiting
eye doctors from Boston. She had travelled an entire day to get her
eyes examined. Most
of us complain about having to commute 30 minutes to work. She spoke
little Spanish but it
didn't take me long to examine her eyes and determine her problem -- she
was legally blind.
Considering the strength of her prescription, I was worried we might
not be able to help her.
Fortunately, I was able to locate a pair of glasses for her in the
pile of used glasses we had
brought down to distribute. While not a perfect match, the glasses
were close enough to her
prescription to restore her vision -- never mind that they had 1950s cat-eye-style frames. I was
feeling satisfied that we had done good work that day.

But two days later the same woman showed up again. Back in her
village, her cat eye glasses
had been the source of ridicule. It was enough for her to make the
arduous journey again to see
if we could offer her a different pair of glasses. Sadly, we could
not. The used cat eye glasses
were the only pair that even came close to her prescription. I could
never have predicted what
happened next: the woman thanked us for trying to help, returned the
glasses, then paddled
back up the river, virtually blind. This was a defining moment in my
life, when I first realized
that there are prescriptions, and then there is pride.

The New York Times recently published an article highlighting a new
study that documents the
inefficiencies associated with the distribution of used eyeglasses in
the developing world. The study gives evidentiary support to what I witnessed
firsthand as that optometry
student 25 years ago. I learned two things from that experience:
First, the problem is immense.
Estimates for those who can have their vision restored with a pair of
eyeglasses range from
500 million to 1 billion. The vast majority of those individuals simply do
not have access to affordable
glasses. Second, the preoccupation with personal appearance is a human
characteristic shared
the world over, or put another way, vanity is not monopolized by the rich.

Having seen the depth and persistence of the market failure to deliver
this simple tool, I decided
to do something about it. I founded VisionSpring in 2001 so I could be
an advocate for people
like the woman in Choco, not by providing them with free glasses, but
by treating them like
customers. I built a commercially viable, scalable business model that
activated consumers
traditionally ignored by the eyeglasses market: the Base of the
Pyramid (BoP) consumer.

From the beginning, I understood that our success as an organization
was contingent on our
ability to be responsive to the needs and preferences of the BoP
consumer. Pioneering a
new business model, it is easy to get distracted by the business of the
business. Forging new
distribution channels, streamlining supply chains and determining
appropriate price points are
all critical elements of any product-based business. But it was only
when VisionSpring started
developing aspirational products specifically designed for the BoP
consumer that market forces
were unleashed and we began to see a path to sustainability. That was
a critical moment in our
history.

Now is another, VisionSpring has just sold its 1,000,000th pair of
glasses through our distribution
channels in El Salvador and India and through partnerships with
organizations like BRAC. A
University of Michigan study determined that reading glasses have the
potential to increase
our customer's productivity by 35%. For the hundreds of thousands of
tailors, mechanics and
rug makers whose work suffers as their eyesight begins to fail, this
increase in productivity
translates into tangible economic gain. Additional analysis of the
data from the study indicates
that increased productivity can translate into a 20% increase in the
average monthly income of
VisionSpring's target customer. Based on this data, we have created
more than $216,000,000 in
economic impact.

And this is only the beginning of our story; we are on course to sell
10 million more over the
next 10 years.

Even though we have yet to receive a single request for cat eye frames,
if that were to change,
we are prepared to give our customers what they want.