Meet The Social Entrepreneur Who Discovered A Problem Hiding In Plain Sight
There are lots of people who want to change the world—people who wish to use their time and talent to “do good.” But there’s no clear roadmap for how. Many social entrepreneurs, myself included, trace our journey back to a lightbulb moment where a combination of right-place-right-time and active curiosity suddenly illuminated a path forward. That’s what happened to Dr. Jordan Kassalow, an optometrist and founder of VisionSpring, a nonprofit dedicated to delivering affordable glasses and vision care to the world’s poor. Now, he’s written a book called Dare to Matter: Your Path to Making a Difference Now to help others find their lightbulb moment and use their talents for good.
I’ve known Jordan for years, and see a lot of his journey as a social entrepreneur mirrored in my own. Both of us witnessed firsthand a social and market failure: in his case, 2.5 billion people unable to reach their full potential because they can’t access affordable eyeglasses; in mine, 2.5 billion people dependent on small family farms for their livelihoods, living in poverty because they are unable to reach larger markets. We each founded an organization to correct these failures—but the fact is that a single organization or entrepreneur can never create the bold change needed to address the scale of these problems. Even when the solution is as simple as a pair of glasses, transforming the lives of billions of people requires a systems change mindset. I spoke with Jordan recently about what makes a successful social entrepreneur, the importance of collaborating across sectors to advance large-scale change, and how anyone can make a difference in the lives of others.
WILLY FOOTE: Tell us about your journey as a social entrepreneur. What prompted you to found VisionSpring?
JORDAN KASSALOW: My path to founding VisionSpring began long before I knew that there was such a thing as a social entrepreneur. It actually started far more simply. I was on a post-graduation climbing and hiking trip with some friends in the Alaskan Brooks Range, and still a little uncertain as to what I wanted to do next, including whether I should go to optometry school.
Fortunately, I had a moment on that trip of absolute clarity—not necessarily about whether to go to optometry school, but clarity about the kind of life I hoped to live. I was on a solo climb, and it was raining horizontally because of an intense wind. The scale and remoteness of my surroundings made me feel insignificant. And I hated that feeling that my life didn’t really matter. I knew then that I absolutely had to make my life and my time on this earth count—that I couldn’t just be here, but that I had to do something that mattered beyond caring for myself and the people I loved.
Everything in my life since then has unfolded from that core understanding—my true north. I carried that true north with me into a small village in the northwestern region of the Yucatán Peninsula, where, as a first-year optometry student on a volunteer medical mission, my very first patient ever—a seven-year-old boy named Raúl—helped me discover a problem hiding in plain sight. That problem was the significant unmet global need for glasses, and it ultimately led me to create VisionSpring. When Raúl sat down in the exam chair, his mother explained that he had been blind since birth. Upon further examination, however, we realized that Raúl was not blind, but actually needed an especially strong eyeglass prescription to see. Seeing that this boy’s entire future hinged on a simple pair of eyeglasses lit a fire in my belly that has never gone out. Ever since, my mission has been to make affordable, high quality eyewear and vision services available to what I would learn were 2.5 billion people the world over, for whom a pair of glasses is the only thing standing between them and an education or a job or even basic safety and security.
WF: I’ve written in this column before about the often amorphous definition of “social entrepreneurship.” What do you see as a social entrepreneur’s unique role and objective?
JK: A social entrepreneur is someone who is drawn to a problem, often an invisible one. Yet the reason the social entrepreneur sees that problem is because it’s something that gets stuck in your craw—something that resonates on a level so deep that, once you allow it to take up space in your being, you find that it would be impossible for you to stop trying to address it. While a social entrepreneur must move from the heart space to the head space to start chipping away at an entrenched social need, the heart always will be the engine that keeps moving you forward, especially when the task seems too great.
The heart also is the engine that allows the social entrepreneur to shine a spotlight on the need you have discovered needs you most. Because building a social enterprise is also about building a movement. In order to iterate, leverage, and scale, a social entrepreneur’s heart and soul investment is what empowers you to communicate the need in a totally organic way, a genuine way that is contagious. It gives you the tools to bring in multiple partners and stakeholders across every sector that will own the problem as their challenge too—such that they join you and bring their unique talents and resources to the table to help you create sustainable solutions and lasting positive change.
WF: That resonates deeply with me. Another thing I think sets social entrepreneurs apart is that social service providers focus on making a broken system a little bit better (and that incremental work is extremely important!), while social entrepreneurs aim to permanently transform the system as a whole. And those different roles require different skillsets, approaches, and perspectives. What do you think makes a successful social entrepreneur?
JK: While it’s true that social entrepreneurs are drawn to creating solutions that will ultimately transform entire systems and permanently solve big problems, we always have to remember that successful social entrepreneurs serve people, not problems. Because social entrepreneurs are servants first—people who are committed to creating the conditions for human flourishing, for every single member of the human family to have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. When you lead with the intention of serving people, not problems, you become more attuned to the lessons that everyone in your midst has to teach you. You understand how incredibly important it is to listen to the people whose lives you hope to help change more than you talk; to observe, to be present, rather than evaluate with a goal and the path to achieving that goal already in mind.
Practically every aspect of what has made VisionSpring successful has come from something I have learned as a servant leader by listening and observing. For instance, the reason why I knew that we had to find a way for people who earn an average of $4 a day to have access to attractive, high quality glasses at a price point they can afford was the direct result of an interaction I had as a student volunteering at a temporary eye clinic in Colombia. We arrived, as we always did on these volunteer missions, with boatloads of used donated frames. Oftentimes, we wouldn’t be able to give patients glasses that were a 100% match for their prescription. In order to find the best match, we would sometimes give a woman a man’s frames or vice-versa, and they certainly didn’t get to choose glasses like you and I do as a fashion accessory. But I had no idea how truly problematic this was until a woman named Noka—who had navigated one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the region in a boat by herself—arrived at our clinic. Upon examination, we determined that Noka was legally blind without glasses. We fitted her with a pair and sent her on her way.
The next day, Noka returned. She had once again made a lengthy and perilous trip on her own, and had once again done so with no glasses, even though she had received a pair the day before. She came over to me, glasses in hand, to return them. Noka explained that when she returned to her village wearing them, she had been made fun of and bullied by family members and neighbors. It wasn’t until she explained this to me that I looked at the glasses—1950s cat-eye frames with Coke bottle lenses jutting out awkwardly on both sides. I went from having felt really great about restoring her vision, to feeling like a total jerk. Would she ever have chosen those frames for herself? Absolutely not. They made her feel self-conscious, and what’s worse, they turned her into the butt of jokes. Why should she have to choose between her dignity and the ability to see? Plus, if we were giving people glasses that they weren’t realistically going to wear, then we weren’t actually correcting their vision. Serve the people first and always, and the solutions to the brokenness in the world you are trying to heal will follow.
WF: When I consider the scale of the problem that my organization, Root Capital, is addressing—we’re talking about 2.5 billion people who depend on small family farms for their livelihoods. Similarly, there are 2.5 billion people globally who are visually impaired and without access to eyeglasses. We both know that no one organization can meet the needs of that many people. That’s why Root Capital helped found the Council on Smallholder Agricultural Finance; that’s why both of our organizations were founding members of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs. And you created EYElliance, a multi-sector partnership that brings together nonprofits like VisionSpring with public stakeholders like USAID and private sector actors like Warby Parker. What was the idea behind this collaboration and what have you learned from it so far?
JK: It all comes back to partnerships. I learned early on in VisionSpring’s life that your ability to scale is only as good as your ability to partner wisely. Knowing when to lead, when to walk side-by-side, and when to follow the lead of others has been, and remains, a key to VisionSpring’s success.
As we know, though, success when you’re dealing with social needs that affect billions looks completely different than most any other goal you set out to achieve. About five years ago, I was talking with a VisionSpring colleague of mine named Liz Smith. We discussed how we were still living in a reality where the lives of more than 2.5 billion people could be completely changed for the better if they had a simple pair of glasses. Despite the existence of a cost effective, elegant solution, not one global initiative was focused on eliminating what currently is the second leading cause of blindness in the developing world. It was Liz who pushed me to think more boldly, and together we decided it was imperative that we co-found EYElliance. We knew that, without a serious dedicated global initiative, VisionSpring alone would never be able to meet this need. And if this need were allowed to grow over the course of the next 30 years, what is already a serious global health crisis would potentially move beyond the possibility for any kind of meaningful impact, let alone complete transformation.
EYElliance is rooted in the transformative power of partnerships, and takes that power to the next level. It recognizes that NGOs are great at creating innovative solutions, but that they also require partners from the private and governmental sectors to increase their impact and go from affecting millions of lives to changing billions of lives.
WF: You have a book coming out on April 30, Dare to Matter: Your Path to Making a Difference Now, in which you offer tools to help busy people find a way to make a meaningful difference in the world.. What’s your main advice for people seeking to become agents of social impact while balancing all the other responsibilities of everyday life?
JK: Dare to Matter is a book about integrating two fundamental needs we all share: the desire to live a life rich with meaning and the hunger to make a difference in the lives of others. To be part of something bigger than yourself, while also living in the real world with real life demands and commitments: earning a living, being there for the people you love, and taking care of yourself. Most people think that making a difference starts with finding something that needs fixing or that it’s about making radical moves in your life, like changing careers, finding a way to earn more money so you can do more good, or living with much less money in order to do more. But it’s actually about doing simple things, asking yourself simple questions that help you clarify what you value the most, care about the most, and then consciously building a life that aligns with your vision over time. And it’s about making sure that some part of the time you spend on earth gets allocated to doing something—whatever you choose, whatever chooses you, whether for an hour a week or 15 minutes a day—for someone or something far greater than you.
WF: This book is clearly great for social entrepreneurs, but it also seems like it’s important for everyone and any age. In your mind who should read this book and why?
JK: Dare to Matter is really a book for anyone who wants to find a way, that is completely unique to them, to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others—and at the same time discover and experience greater meaning in their own life. I know from personal experience that these two forces have informed my decisions from the time I was 22 to this very day as I approach 60. I also know from hundreds of conversations I’ve had both at home and abroad—with people who are just out of college, people who are in their forties and starting to evaluate their lives from a legacy standpoint, people who are well into their retirement years who want to use their life experience, wisdom, and freedom to make every day count—that wanting to imbue our lives with personal meaning and social purpose transcends generations, backgrounds, and cultural divides. I think it really proves that we have something to offer in absolutely every stage of our life, as long as we’re willing to dare ourselves to be everything that we were created to be. To fulfill our own promise and find where we fit in the great puzzle of fulfilling the promise of a better, more peaceful, safer, more just world.