There are innumerable moments when we feel strongly about something. Most of these moments fade away in our memories after a couple of days. Only a few powerful ones stay with us and those are the moments that define us. It was one such moment in the life of Jordan Kassalow that gave him a sense of purpose of his life and is changing the lives of millions around the world today.
Jordan was a 23 year old student of optometric studies when he participated in a trip to Mexico for a medical camp. He experienced the defining moment of his life when he was looking into the eyes of a 7 year old blind boy – as described by his parents and comprehensible from the fact that he was carrying a brail book in his hand. To Jordan’s surprise, he found during the checkup that the boy was not blind. He needed high power eyeglasses. Just by putting a pair of donated eyeglasses on the boy’s eye, he had given the vision of world, and of life at large, to a so-called blind boy.
This powerful moment transformed Jordan’s life too. In 2001, Jordan along with his friend Scott Berrie, founded VisionSpring, a social enterprise which aims to ensure the availability of equitable and affordable eyeglasses to every individual in the world. Within moments of starting to speak with Jordan, I could see his clarity of vision, a calm & composed approach to a very large problem and a skilled and passionate entrepreneur who knows both his business and his purpose very well.
Jordan shares about his early days of trying to find a sustainable and scalable solution to a widely spread problem staring at the face of most of the developing nations. He says, “I was seeing a very large market to build a solution for and also the failure of private and government approached to tackle it. Civil societies, charitable approaches were neither sustainable nor scalable.” When 700 million people cannot afford a product or service, a charity model could not have worked. Jordan was thinking of an economically viable and sustainable business model.
For first few years, VisionSpring sold only reading glasses through vision entrepreneurs – who are local people hired and trained to for carrying out marketing and eye testing and are responsible for reaching out to the innermost areas of the target segment. They did not have any stores and were still not selling prescription glasses, which was the higher margin product. After iterating the business model time and again, Jordan found an approach to tackle the problem at the larger scale with two models and started working relentlessly on them. Today, VisionSpring has a presence in about 25 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America, with 100 staff members and more than 10,000 vision entrepreneurs.
Currently VisionSpring is operating with partnership model and hub & spoke model to have the maximum impact. In the hub & spoke model, VisionSpring sets up an optical store managed by a local manager and employing local community people as vision entrepreneurs to expand the outreach in the community. These vision entrepreneurs carry ‘business in a bag’, giving eye screenings, selling reading glasses, eyedrops etc. to people in need at a minimal price and also find and referring people with graver eye diseases to a VisionSpring optometrist.
The other model VisionSpring uses is partnering with the existing organizations working in the field areas and utilizes their sales and partnership channels to provide eye care products to a larger set of people. The target market for VisionSpring is the base of pyramid economic segment and there are 703 million people in the world who are in need of just a pair of eyeglasses to help restore their vision. 90% of these people live in the developing countries of the world.
VisionSpring has its presence in India as well and it is the only country except El Salvador where they are working with both hub & spoke and partnership model. In the early years, VisionSpring was not even able to cover the cost of operations but persevering through 12 years, they have finally reached the milestone where they have the first profitably operational country, El Salavador. Jordan shares very happily that they will scale up the operations to 10 folds.
Talking of social entrepreneurship as a career, Jordan says, “There are huge number of pressing social problems which need social entrepreneurship talent to tackle them.” Jordan believes that one must have a purpose driven objective. Social entrepreneurship is a much more rewarding professional career than a career for just making money. It is a very rich path in life where one can align passion, purpose and career.
From an experience of 12+ years in social entrepreneurship space in more than 25 countries of the world, Jordan advises that it is extremely important to understand the legal structure of the country one is trying to work in and the feasibility of the business model in the market one is trying to cater to.