My wet clammy cotton shirt stuck to my back, beads of sweat dotted my forehead, for I had just seen my 300th patient of the week. When we arrived, a serpentine line of 2,000 people engulfed the school that became our makeshift eye clinic. Exhausted, I looked up from my chair and realized the line was just as long as the day we started. It was at that moment that I realized I could be sitting in that very chair for the rest of my life and never make a meaningful dent in the untapped need for vision services in rural Mexico, let alone, the greater reaches of the developing world.
It was clear: I needed leverage in order to address the unmet need for eyeglasses. It would require getting my butt out of that chair and countless others into it. In response, I founded VisionSpring, a not-for-profit social business that ensure affordable access to eyewear, everywhere. After more than 10 years, we have trained an army of sales agents, 20,000 strong. Thanks to them, we are closing in on our 2 millionth customer, 500,000 of whom were reached in 2013 alone. Yet, compared to the over 700 million people who do not have access to affordable eyeglasses, we haven’t made enough of an impact. It seems like I’m having another one of those “looking up from the chair moments.” I need to leverage myself yet again.
With this mindset, I arrived in Davos last week to participate in the 2014 World Economic Forum. I was a guest of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs as one of their Fellows from the 2012 cohort. I arrived with a few central questions: How do I go from building an enterprise to building a movement? How do I build a multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, ecosystem aimed at placing vision issues more centrally on the economic development agenda? I believe that in order to accelerate impact, I will need to get governments, private sector, and civil society working together to solve the problem on a global basis. I wondered if whether others would agree?
Prior to Davos, I worked with Liz Smith from VisionSpring, and others, to decipher the most powerful links between vision and development. The framework had three pillars: See to Learn, See to Work, and See For Safety. For example, studies indicate that the impact of a pair of glasses on a child’s education is equivalent to between 1/2 to 1 full year of schooling. On the work front, we have demonstrated that a pair of eyeglasses increases productivity by 35 per cent. In regards to safety, a study from Italy showed that poor vision plays a role in 59% of road traffic accidents.
What follows is a brief summary of some key conversations I had to test our ideas, push them forward, and benefit from “the magic of Davos.”
To forward our See to Learn effort, I met with Robert Orr, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and a few of his team members from their Strategic Planning Unit. They listened to my ideas intently and there was immediate resonance. They have worked on several multi-sector partnerships over the years like the International Road Traffic Coalition, and the Every Women, Every Child campaign. Robert strongly advised me not to build a separate vision movement but rather to have our coalition work to insinuate vision issues into ongoing broad based efforts where vision is an important input. To this end, he connected me to Gordon Brown, who is now the UN Special Envoy for Global Education.
Given the enormous rise of mobile technology, many people need to see their phones to work, bank, text, and communicate. Millions can’t see their cell phones without eyeglasses. I then spoke with Ajay Banga, the President and CEO of MasterCard. Although he never thought of this problem, it made immediate sense given that he relied on his eyeglasses to see his phone. Given the future of mobile money to his business, he was intrigued and loved the idea of coupling the sale of phones with eyeglasses. I had similar conversations with Beatriz Butsana-Sita, a Managing Director of British Telecom and Kamal Quadir, the CEO from BKash, a mobile banking company in Bangladesh that has signed up over 11 million customers in their first 3 years of business. I even spoke to Jessica Beegle, Healthcare & Life Science Leader at Amazon about creating an app to turn cell phones into vision screening devices and hooking them up with Amazon distribution.
On the See for Safety front, I met with Michel Lies, the Group CEO, of Swiss Re. We discussed how to engage the insurance and automobile sector in our effort to ensure the rising millions who are driving have adequate vision correction to do so safely. He introduced me to the concept of the insurance companies bringing resources to this effort through avoided risk. Simply stated, he believed insurance companies would potentially cover the cost of glasses by reducing the risk they are carrying. He put me in touch with his team in India who I will meet next month to continue the conversation.
I also had number of meetings that informed my path forward. David McCormick, Co-CEO of Bridgewater was key in helping me think through strategy. Roger Crook, the CEO of DHL Global Forwarding, Freight, expressed his interest in bringing his companies logistic capabilities to the ecosystem. Chris Elias, President of Global Development at the Gates Foundation and Dr. Pawan Goenka, President of Mahindra, expressed that the ecosystem approach was sound and the right way to tackle the problem.
Lastly, Don Tapscott, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on innovation, media, and the economic and social impact of technology, discussed the rise of Global Solution Networks as a major force for tackling far reaching global challenges. He predicted this would be one of the major trends in the coming years.
My week at Davos was educational, inspirational, fun, and reassuring. I walked away, having met a unique blend of global leaders who connected with the issue I’m trying to solve, as well as supporting the idea that in order to move from building an enterprise to a movement, it would take a dedicated mix of actors from governments, the private sector, and civil society. Now comes the fun part, action!