Pandemic Pivot: How Warby Parker Stayed Focused

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Wharton’s Katherine Klein speaks with Warby Parker’s David Gilboa about how his company has navigated the coronavirus pandemic.

Warby Parker co-founder and co-CEO David Gilboa described the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic as “a decade of learning in a period of a few months.”

The iconic eyewear brand, which had skyrocketed into the retail stratosphere by disrupting an entire industry, found itself being pulled down by the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic. The company temporarily shuttered all of its stores last year while executives brainstormed how best to blunt the impact of the pandemic, maintain their commitment to social good, and address the other burning issue that 2020 brought to the fore — diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

It hasn’t been easy, Gilboa said, but the company has come out stronger.

“We’re just so proud and impressed by the resilience that our team has shown over the period of the last year — how we’ve all come together, been able and willing to support one another and go that extra mile, and be as flexible as needed — given how quickly we’ve had to respond to new information and make adjustments on the fly,” he said.

In a candid interview with Katherine Klein, vice dean for the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, Gilboa shared how Warby Parker has been working through the unique pressures of the past year, specifically in the areas of company growth, social impact, and DEI. The interview was part of the Initiative’s Dollars and Change podcast. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page; find more episodes here.)

Growing in Tough Times

Warby Parker was famously founded at Wharton by Gilboa, Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, and Jeffrey Raider — four MBA students who came up with a business plan that ultimately disrupted the industry. The company was launched in 2010 through a $2,500 seed investment from the Wharton Venture Initiation Program and has grown exponentially in the last decade. Although born exclusively online, Warby Parker now has more than 125 stores in the United States and Canada, and last year reached a reported valuation of $3 billion.

Business was humming along when the pandemic hit, prompting the executive team to make the difficult decision to close all stores on March 14, 2020. Gilboa said they were among the first retailers to shut down and the first optical store to do so. Warby Parker has 1,500 retail employees and more than half of sales come from stores, he said. The company continued to pay the employees while grappling with what to do next.

“Those types of decisions were challenging at the moment. But leading with our values and being very clear that the health and safety of our team was our No. 1 priority made those decisions easier and clearer, while we were responding to new information on almost an hourly basis,” Gilboa said.

Keeping the Social Impact Promise

The pandemic also complicated Warby Parker’s commitment to social impact, a founding principle for the company. Its “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” program has distributed more than 8 million glasses to people in need around the world with the help of nonprofit partners that conduct eye exams and sell ultra-low-cost glasses. But neither those partners nor Warby Parker leaders felt it was safe to continue during the early days of the pandemic, so they figured out a new plan that would help them keep their promise.

“We immediately pivoted to work with our supply chain partners and some of our nonprofit supply chain partners to help source PPE, personal protective equipment, and offer everything from masks and face shields to gloves and hand-washing stations to communities in the developing world that didn’t have access to these protective provisions that were becoming commonplace in our own communities here in the U.S.,” Gilboa said.

In 2015, the company started Pupils Project, partnering with governmental agencies to provide free vision tests, eye exams, and glasses to students in need. The program started in New York City and has spread to Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. But with many schools closed last year, Warby Parker pressed pause on the program. Now, Gilboa said, it’s ramping back up.

“Those types of decisions were challenging at the moment. But leading with our values and being very clear that the health and safety of our team was our No. 1 priority made those decisions easier and clearer.” –David Gilboa

“Glasses have been around for 800 years, and it’s a failure of society, especially one of the wealthiest cities in the world, New York, where there are 200,000 students who need glasses that don’t have access to them,” he said. “We’re hopefully creating a lot of opportunities for students directly through this program and also creating awareness of how big an issue this is.”

Working for Greater Equality

The widespread protests for racial justice that coalesced around the May 2020 killing of George Floyd prompted many firms to look inward at their own diversity practices, and Warby Parker was among them. In July 2020, the company released its Racial Equity Strategy containing 10 pledges, including increasing diversity leadership at the company, supporting Black entrepreneurs, and increasing voter participation in communities disproportionately challenged by barriers to voting.

Gilboa, Blumenthal, and the other executives embarked on a “listening tour” to better understand the experiences of minority employees, and they were shocked by some of the stories they heard. One Black store manager said white customers will often ask to “speak to the manager,” not realizing that they already were. Another Black employee shared how she was washing her lunch dishes in the sink one day when a white male employee brought his own dirty dishes for her to wash, thinking she was a custodian.

“I don’t think that there was mal-intent on behalf of our white team member, but that intent doesn’t matter,” Gilboa said. “Putting ourselves in the shoes of our Black and BIPOC team members who might experience this was really shocking and upsetting to hear.”

The company is being transparent about its diversity efforts by posting its progress online. Gilboa said half the managers hired in the last year identify as people of color, and the company has endowed full-time scholarships to boost the low numbers of Black optometrists nationwide.

“Probably the biggest thing that we’ve learned in every aspect of our business is that you only manage what you measure,” Gilboa said. “If you don’t clearly articulate goals, if you don’t clearly publish your statistics and data and make that transparent to everyone in your organization and to people outside the organization, diversity is never going to be enough of a focus.”

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