Warby Parker’s Fresh Vision: Talking Glasses, Times Square, and Big Questions with Anjali Kumar

Few industries are as quiet as eyewear, and for precisely this reason Warby Parker is causing a minor revolution. Founded in 2010, the company is disrupting the manufacture and retail of eyeglasses, just as Amazon did for books and Zappo’s for shoes. “Eyeglasses are an 800-year old technology,” says Anjali Kumar, the company’s Head of Social Innovation and General Counsel. “They shouldn’t cost as much or more than an iPhone.” So Warby Parker, through online sales, has priced frames and prescription lenses at $95—period.

The company has also partnered with nonprofit organizations to distribute glasses and optometry services to the approximately billion people around the world who need, but don’t have, access to either. The growing consumer demand to pair corporate mission with equally powerful social mission is a challenge baked into the founding of Warby Parker.

Before joining Warby Parker, Anjali was Senior Counsel at Google NY, where she was a commercial and product attorney on areas ranging from Google X to advertising technology to YouTube. Pre-Google, she was General Counsel at Acumen Fund, an attorney at Shearman & Sterling, and strategic lead at Robin Hood Foundation. She is currently an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University and is a former board member of ISSUE Project Room.

Anjali earned her BA in Biomedical Ethics from Brown University and her JD from Boston University School of Law, and now lives in New York City with her husband, Atul, and daughter, Zia. She took a moment of her time recently to talk with Yale’s Center for Customer Insights.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

I know you, among others, have described Warby Parker as disruptive in its sector. How do you interpret that word?

I think it means a couple of things in this context. Primarily, we think about the word disruption as it fits within the eyewear industry, which has a well-established way of doing business. The industry has been around for ages and it has worked in a very specific way—a lot of middlemen taking a piece and driving up prices. To put it in perspective, eyeglasses are an 800-year old technology. They shouldn’t cost as much or more than an iPhone.

So at Warby Parker when we talk about disruption, it’s changing the way that this business is done. We go direct to the consumer. We cut out the middlemen from manufacturing to distribution, and by going direct to the consumer we’re able to bring our prices down to starting at just $95 per pair. That number is much more reflective of what the price should be for prescription eyewear, and that’s the optical industry part that we’re disrupting.

What’s also interesting about Warby Parker is that we’re disrupting the traditional models of “doing business.” We’re saying that we are able to do well and do good in the world. It’s an idea inspired by companies like Ben & Jerry’s or Patagonia who came before us. We’re looking to them for leadership in the disruption of traditional corporations, or what people think of when they think of how business runs. We’re trying to show that corporations can be run in a different way.

We’re doing our part to try to transform the norms of business and what it means to run a successful business in this day and age.

At the conference, you talked about transforming today’s norms. Do you feel like what you described above reflects the way that norms are shifting?

I think there’s a new generation of entrepreneurs taking on this challenge, that is excited by this challenge. They’re definitely changing the norms. I also think that a new generation of consumers is simply demanding more from the companies that they buy products from and engage with. These two factors are really changing the way business is done, along with the way that successful businesses can run. We’re in the middle of this point, and we’re doing our part to try to transform the norms of business and what it means to run a successful business in this day and age.

You’ve now donated over half-a-million glasses as part of your buy one/give one program. Can you talk about the challenge of scaling with integrity?

Well, it’s an ongoing challenge. We are conscious of the fact that our growth, which has been tremendous and really exciting over the past couple of years, is something that might outpace our nonprofit partners’ ability to scale with us. That’s not a comment on them, but is simply something unanticipated at this early stage on our end. We don’t want to put pressure on our nonprofits to grow at a certain pace just to keep up with our growth.

The challenge is how to continue to meet our social commitment of distributing eyeglasses to those in need in a sustainable way. There’s clearly enough need—we haven’t outpaced the need by any measure. But the distribution challenge in more rural, poor areas is a significant one. How do we actually find additional partners to execute that distribution in a responsible way? It’s an exciting challenge, and a nice problem to have on some level, but we do want to address the problem so we can distribute more glasses responsibly. We don’t have the answer yet.

What do you look for in responsible partners?

We’ve had such great success with our current partners, like VisionSpring, and they have set a very high standard for us—so we’re looking for groups like them. VisionSpring has been around for a long time, the team is doing really great work, they’ve proven their model, they have fantastic leadership and a really strong board, and they are scaling with integrity. They also share our values.

I think it’s critically important to partner with the right people. I’ve seen it again and again in other business partnerships: if you don’t have right partners at the beginning it doesn’t matter how great the idea is. It’s the people you collaborate with early on. So this is a really important time to make sure that our partners are at the level of VisionSpring. As we grow, we all need to know that we’re aligned around the same value system, that we’re all trying to achieve the same goals.

Your TEDx Times Square talk began, “Our story starts with four friends.” There were figures, but it was mostly a narrative-driven talk. Why do you tell stories when talking about Warby Parker?

I think it gives people something to hold on to. That’s the main reason I do it. I can give you the facts and figures, but you won’t listen. It’s really boring after a few minutes. People don’t attend a talk if you’re throwing out a bunch of numbers. I think what people want to hear are stories. They want to relate to something, to hear some challenge and how you thought about it, and feel like they’re part of the journey with you. The power of stories is incredible. There is real strength in storytelling if it’s done well.

Some weeks before the talk I knew what I was going to say, but I wasn’t sure how to present it. I was having lunch with a friend and she said, “You know, you should stop stressing and just tell some stories. Just talk like you’re talking to your friends. Think about what you want to say and tell stories to illustrate the point.”

And that’s basically how I structured the talk. I gave a history of the company, told my journey, how I ended up at Warby, and then I spent most of the time talking about social innovation and what it means at Warby Parker. I got up there and told a story about what we’re doing, what we’re about and what we’re really excited about.

If you don’t have right partners at the beginning it doesn’t matter how great the idea is.

Of the things on your plate right now at Warby Parker, what is most exciting for you?

I think my role in setting strategic direction for the company is really exciting. That’s a little bit of a cop-out answer because it more or less encompasses everything that I do, but that’s what’s so exciting for me. You know, we’re on this rocket ship. There is so much happening that is fun, so much happening that is exciting, and I get to be part of the team that helps set that vision and make it all happen. That opportunity is probably the most exciting thing to me.

Finally, and somewhat tangentially, you’re at work on a book and related documentary. What inspired that, and how has the process been so far?

The actual topic of the book [entitled From Google to God] was inspired by the birth of my daughter. When I had her, I realized that I don’t really know what to teach her regarding life’s “big questions”. So I started working on this idea: what will I teach her? What do I really believe?

I ended up making this into a project just for myself, which then turned into a book project. It took on a life of its own. I was eventually approached by a documentary filmmaker and we talked about turning the book into a film, exploring the themes that way. It’s ultimately meant to be a light-hearted look at spirituality, a book about the adventures exploring spirituality. Now I’m in this ongoing writing, marinating, exploring state of figuring out what I believe. That, also, is exciting.