Waveborn sells Italian shades that combine affordable fashion with a major social mission. For every pair bought, they give eyesight — in the form of prescription glasses or partial funding for cataract surgery — to someone in need in the developing world. Waveborn recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to wild success, blowing their $10,000 funding goal out of the water in less than 36 hours, and almost doubling their goal with a month left to go in the campaign.
I reached out to the Waveborn team to learn more about their project and how social entrepreneurs with a global mindset can have a positive impact on the world. Founder & CEO Jonathan Schilit shares his story below.
AY: What was the initial inspiration behind Waveborn?
JS: From 2008-2010 I oversaw marketing for an organization in NYC called DoSomething.org. There, we worked with social entrepreneurs every single day — and I loved what they were doing. I loved the spirit in building an organization for a social good. I wanted to call myself a social entrepreneur.
But I knew that starting a not-for-profit wasn’t necessarily for me. I had a strong interest in business and entrepreneurship — and wanted to apply that to social good, rather than applying an interest in social good to entrepreneurship. So at that moment, I decided to pursue an MBA, to complement my background in the not-for-profit world, and to have the tools and resources to build an exciting, sustainable company — one that would have a social purpose.
Waveborn was a manifestation of these goals. Start a sustainable company with a revenue model, that can help a greater social good. Malloy [director of business development] has always been a sunglasses aficionado, and McCormick [brand ambassador] has a personal story that aligns with our social purpose. My inspiration was to get a social enterprise off the ground, and see what we could do with it — then surround myself with the right people to make this goal a reality.
For those who might not be familiar with the “buy-one give-one” model, can you explain what happens every time someone buys a pair of Waveborn sunglasses?
For each pair of sunglasses sold, Waveborn helps a person in need in one of two ways: a) we provide a new pair of prescription eyeglasses through our nonprofit partner Unite for Sight, or b) we fund a portion of a vision-restoring cataract surgery for a person in need though our new nonprofit partner, Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International.
So, whenever someone buys a pair of shades for themselves, they’re making a concrete impact on someone else’s ability to see. A lot of people out there are familiar with this model from TOMS Shoes, where for every pair of shoes bought they donate a pair to someone in need — similar model for us, though we’re helping restore vision.
What has been the most significant challenge you’ve faced along the way?
Learning how to deal with the fear, doubt, and uncertainty (both internally and externally) about making the leap into entrepreneurship. I finished my M.S. in computer science at Georgetown last May and then promptly put in my “six week notice” with Deloitte. When I told my parents and friends I was quitting my job to move to the beach to sell sunglasses…I didn’t exactly receive the best response from the people who usually are so supportive of my dreams. Tough conversations were had, and it was hard for me to make the decision to step into entrepreneurship. When people are second guessing your career path, big decisions like this one can really make you question yourself, what you believe in, and where your true priorities are.
I’ve also had to deal with a lot of self-doubt over the past year. Entrepreneurship and exploring the unknown can be pretty scary — especially when you don’t have a reliable paycheck coming every two weeks and need to make ends meet to pay rent each month. Putting my head down and working hard to improve the business day after day has led to some big financial successes to keep moving the company forward. I am very grateful for my friends and family who supported the company (and me) in December and January when we raised money for my month-long sales trip to CA, as well as for our huge partnership deal with Major League Ultimate that has been vital to the company’s growth in 2013.
Zig Ziglar once said, “Sometimes adversity is what you need to face in order to become successful.” Well, we’ve faced plenty of adversity over the past 2 years, so I’m looking forward to plenty of success as we continue to handle any adversity thrown our way.
You’re selling Italian-made sunglasses internationally to help give sight to people in places like Ghana, Honduras, and India, and are based out of San Francisco. How did you decide to combine so many different places into your business model?
We want to build a globally connected community of people and want to make an impact where it matters most. Going to Italy to get our sunglasses designed and hand-crafted made sense to fulfill our high quality standards. In researching various organizations to partner with, it made the most sense to find organizations that are having an impact across the globe, not just in our own backyards.
We believe that as the company continues to grow, we will be able to continue to expand our impact into new geographical regions while continuing to produce some of the finest sunglasses on the planet.
Why Italian-made sunglasses? Does producing Waveborn glasses in Italy have substantial advantages over producing somewhere else in the world, like China?
We picked Italy for the quality. We want people to know that they are not only investing in the concept of helping others, but that they are investing in a quality product that is durable. It’s a win-win situation. They cost significantly more to manufacture than getting them from China, but we believe investing in quality is what’s best for the business.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about global social entrepreneurship through Waveborn?
It feels good to do good, and that feeling inspires others to want to do the same. This is the primary reason I like the buy-one give-one model of business, and I definitely encourage globally minded social entrepreneurs out there to consider a similar model. Not only do you get to sustain yourself in a meaningful project, you also get to help a lot of people in the process.
What kind of impact has Waveborn had for your beneficiaries? How have you seen this “buy-one give-one” model make a difference in people’s lives?
To date, we have donated over 600 pairs of prescription eyeglasses to Unite for Sight. These glasses have been given to patients in Ghana, Honduras, and India. Check it out below.
Any advice for social entrepreneurs who want to connect different countries and cultures like you’ve done?
It’s all about building relationships. So much of our time is spent building relationships with folks who work in different cities/countries/organizations. As you build relationships, you need to remain focused on finding ways to help people, and not just on finding ways to get something you want. The more you genuinely care about those around you and spend time learning about the difficulties they face, the better equipped you will be to work together to find a solution that benefits all of those involved.
We believe in paying it forward and encouraging everyone to find ways to help those around you. When you eventually do need help with something, there should be a line of folks ready to repay the favor from your previous kindness and generosity.
You can start by ending every email you send with “Is there anything else I can do to help you?” You’ll be amazed by how people respond when you genuinely ask how you can help them.
Any other thoughts you’d like to leave us with? What’s the best way for our readers to connect with you and/or support your project if they’re interested?
You can join the Waveborn movement by checking out our campaign. We’ll be sending out periodic campaign updates to all of our backers, and we’ll have special limited-edition shades that are only available to our campaign backers forever.
Every time you wear your Waveborns, tell the Waveborn story to someone new.