Warby Parker CEO Neil Blumenthal has a colorful background. Now one of New York’s most successful entrepreneurs, Blumenthal boasts a CV that reads like the fever dream of a Ritalin-addled do-gooder before co-founding his now-ubiquitous hipster eyeglass frames company.
How did het get there? He told Sarah Lacy at tonight’s PandoMonthly.
Graduating from Tufts University with a degree in international relations, Blumenthal went from writing international policy to directing a non-profit in the developing world. The organization, VisionSpring, provided inexpensive glasses to people in developing nations. Blumenthal says more than 1 billion people who need them don’t have eye glasses. As he explained “on the hierarchy of needs, glasses are pretty low.”
For five years he traveled around Asia, including Bangladesh, providing residents with eye exams and the necessary specs. According to Blumenthal, his experiences in the non-profit world taught him a lot about business management: “I learned a lot about marketing and building credibility,” he told Lacy.
Half a decade later he returned to the US and enrolled in business school. As Blumenthal sees it, the business community “really undervalued non profit and social business work.” Despite his graduate course work in negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as experience at both a think tank and an international non-profit, he didn’t think he was ready to start a successful company.
So Blumenthal enrolled at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania with one goal — “start a social enterprise that would have a broad impact using business principals and market management.” He told Lacy that he re-looked at his MBA application recently and was proud to report that he’s accomplished what he had originally set out to do.
At the same time, having an MBA is a double-edged sword. Often VCs and CEOs wax philosophic about the uselessness of business educations, but Blumenthal disagrees. “Business schools think of themselves as preparing people to be leaders in any type of field,” he said, adding that “probably my hand is a lot stronger from all those handshakes.” But you need that in an organization, so while some may find MBA-types annoying, Blumenthal sees an MBA as something that could be vital to the startup world.
Blumenthal attributes much of Warby Parker’s success to his and his co-founders’ experiences at business school. Going to business school “was the most helpful and useful of any of my educational background,” he said.