Warby Parker’s Hannah Kowalski is an experienced cross-functional collaborator with a commitment to social impact, innovation, and sustainability. As the Director of Social Innovation at Warby Parker, Hannah oversees the company’s Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program, carbon neutrality efforts, and ESG reporting. She also serves as the Executive Director of the Warby Parker Impact Foundation. During her time at Warby Parker, the company has grown its Do Good work to over 13 million pairs of glasses distributed across 75 countries, launched the Warby Parker Impact Foundation, and recertified as a B Corporation.
John Shegerian: Listen to the Impact podcast on all your favorite podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Audible, Spotify, Stitcher, and of course, at impact podcast.com. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com. This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Closed Loops platform spans the arc of capital, from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies. To scale the Circular economy. To Find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.
John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of The Impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian and I’m so excited and honored to have with us today, Hannah Kowalski, she’s Director of Social Innovation at Warby Parker, welcome to the Impact Podcast, Hannah.
Hannah Kowalski: Thanks so much for having me.
John Shegerian: Of course. Hannah, before we get talking about all the great and important work you’re doing in social innovation and impact at Warby Parker, can you talk a little bit about your background, where you grow up and how you even get on this journey?
Hannah: Yeah, for sure. So I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. My mom works in nonprofits and my dad works in the field of biotechnology and regenerative medicine. So I had two really amazing examples growing up of ways that you can involve your personal interests and your passions with a career that kind of has a broader impact. I went to college in Vermont at Middlebury and during college, I had various internships at nonprofits, but ultimately decided to start my career after graduation in marketing. So after Middlebury, I moved to New York and was working in marketing at a professional services firm, and kind of on the side of my role there, I was working on their corporate social responsibility program. Over the years that I was at that company, I came to the realization that I was a lot more excited by and interested in the corporate social responsibility work than the kind of day-to-day of my B two B marketing role. At that point in time was thinking about what I wanted to do next and really decided to hone in on that area as a next step. I had always been a fan of Warby Parker and other brands that had similarly ingrained social impact into their business models and was just keeping on top of those different companies and what was going on in this space. One thing led to another, and ultimately my timing was right in that I joined Warby when they were first hiring for a social innovation role for the first time, and I’ve been with the company ever since.
John Shegerian: How many years ago was that?
Hannah: Five years ago?
John Shegerian: Five years ago. So you came on as director of social innovation to start with?
Hannah: No, I started as the social innovation associate. There was one other team member who had started very early on with the company. I think she was one of the first 10 or 20 employees, and she was serving as the manager and then director [inaudible] at that time, but a couple of years ago, she left the company and I’ve been a team of one since then.
John Shegerian: For our listeners and viewers who want to find Hannah and all of the great work that she’s doing with her colleagues in social innovation and impact, please go to www.warbyparker.com. Hannah, just because there’s so much terminology out there now. Sustainability, ESG, the linear to circular economy, nature positive, net zero. What does the director of social innovation entail at Warby Parker? Because that role could be different at different firms. So I would just love for you to frame up first for our listeners and viewers, what does it mean at Warby Parker, the director of Social innovation?
Hannah: Yeah. So as the director of Social innovation, my work really encompasses anything that touches the social impact philanthropy or sustainability space for the company. So some of those key initiatives include our buy a Pair, give a Pair program, our carbon neutrality efforts, all of our ESG reporting. I also currently serve as the executive director of the Warby Parker Impact Foundation, which is a nonprofit we set up a few years ago.
John Shegerian: That’s a lot for a team of one.
Hannah: I get a lot of help.
John Shegerian: That’s all right. So let’s break that down then. So talk a little bit about the buy a pair, give a pair to start with, since you that’s one of your programs that you’re running. What does that mean at Warby Parker and how does that create great impact on this planet?
Hannah: Yeah, so Warby Parker was founded in 2010, and since day one, we have had the buy a pair give a pair program where for every pair of glasses that we sell, a pair is distributed to somebody in need. And really doing good was one of the reasons why our founders founded the company. They wanted to be able to use the business as a force for good. That’s one of the reasons why this program has existed from the get-go. The technology behind glasses is over 700 years old, but it’s estimated that today there are 1 billion people around the world who need glasses and don’t have access to them. So the goal of the program is to help alleviate that issue by providing access to eyecare. We do the actual distribution in one of two ways. The first model is through social entrepreneurship, where we work with nonprofit partners to train adults to go out into their communities, administer basic vision tests and sell glasses at a nominal fee to help earn a livelihood and also increase access to glasses in their community. The second model of distribution is a direct donation model where again, we work with different partners to directly give vision care and glasses to those with little to no ability to purchase them.
John Shegerian: From my readings and background work on Warby Parker, do I have this right? You are about to hit almost 15 million pairs of glasses that you’ve distributed and donated over the last 13 or so years.
Hannah: Yeah, so since 2010, we’ve distributed over 13 million pairs and counting.
John Shegerian: That’s just incredible. That’s a lot of impact. So let’s step back now. I remember when Warby Parker launched back in 2010, it was an online company. What was the original mission of Warby Parker as a mission statement?
Hannah: Yeah, so the mission of the company, I think from the beginning has really been to inspire and impact the world with vision, purpose, and style without charging a premium for it. So as you mentioned, we started as an online-only business. We’ve since expanded and now have over 200 retail stores across the US and Canada offering prescription glasses, eye exams, vision tests, and contacts.
John Shegerian: So it’s both now an online and offline company.
Hannah: Yes, very much so.
John Shegerian: Hannah, there’s a lot of ways companies try to get to their net zero goals, and there’s no right way or wrong way, but they’re just based on each company’s idiosyncrasies, they find the better way for themselves to go about it. Talk about some of the things that you’re doing at Warby Parker to achieve your net zero goals.
Hannah: So as a company, we have been carbon neutral for our operations since our founding. Every year we calculate our carbon footprint and purchase offsets to neutralize the footprint of our operations and publish what that footprint looks like in our annual impact report. We’re also always constantly working internally on different initiatives to reduce the amount of materials we use or otherwise reduce our footprint. So for example, every pair of glasses that we get from manufacturers that you see in stores comes with a pair of demo lenses, which are the clear lenses that are in a frame when it’s shipped or when you try on a pair. Historically, those demo lenses at Warby Parker and really across the industry were just discarded as landfill waste. In 2022, we partnered with Eastman Chemical to launch a first of its kind demo lens recycling program where the demo lenses are collected and go through Eastman’s molecular recycling technology to be broken down and then reused in place of fossil fuels. So last year we saved over 20,000 pounds of landfill waste through that program as an industry demo lenses contribute to more than 5,000 tons of waste each year. So we were really excited not just for us to be able to implement this program, but to also share this project and these learnings with the industry to help improve at least that one piece of the pie across the whole eyewear industry.
John Shegerian: Are your competitors or other members of your industry now following your technology that you’re using?
Hannah: Yeah. So the technology is run by Eastman Chemical, and so Eastman is now setting up partnerships with other brands as well to be able to leverage that capacity for demo lenses specifically.
John Shegerian: Wow, that’s wonderful. And then I assume also it’s a fascinating challenge also how to balance the interest because you’re both online and you also have a couple hundred physical stores. How do you balance energy needs and things of that such in terms of offsetting carbon use and things that such because you’re both online and offline now?
Hannah: So obviously as we open more retail stores, we use more electricity and energy associated with those stores, but we do continue to purchase the offsets to neutralize that footprint. So the footprint that we’re offsetting is of the entirety of our operations as well as those materials associated with our products, shipping, logistics, all of that, while we know that offsets are not the one and done, that’s it, we are continuing to leverage offsets as we look through a longer-term strategy of how to address our footprint.
John Shegerian: And frankly speaking, offsets today is what we have as our best practices, as we all try to find better and greener types of forms of energy because of course, it’s very diverse energy opportunities in terms of green energy are very diverse across. It’s not a one-size-fits-all since you have a couple hundred stores across the United States, the energy opportunities and green energy opportunities are different everywhere. So that’s an ongoing battle too. How do you decide, and how does Warby Parker decide? Because impact can mean one thing, social innovation, ESG means one thing to one company and another to another company. How does your team, in terms of the original founders, yourself and other leaders at Warby Parker decide how to strata what’s most important at Warby Parker since you’re already just by what you’re doing, you’re already doing good in terms of making the planet a better place by just doing your buy a pair, give a pair program. How far do you take the environmental opportunities that are out there and in terms of narrowing the scope, so there’s enough to do, but not an overwhelming amount where you lose sight of the mission?
Hannah: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. Just to kind of take a step back as a business, we are a very stakeholder-centric company. We are incorporated as a public benefit corporation. We’re B Corp certified. We’re one of the few publicly traded B Corp certified PBCs in the country and we consider all of our stakeholders and everything that we do, including in our impact and the environment is a key stakeholder as are our employees, our customers, our partners, et cetera. And so when we’re thinking of what social innovation means at Warby Parker and where the areas of impact are that we can truly have impact on, we take that lens of the different stakeholders and look at how we are impacting those stakeholder groups in different ways. So as I mentioned, of course the environment is one of them, but then we’re also thinking about how can we impact our customers? How can we impact our community? Things like buy a pair, give a pair, or our pupils project program, which is the school-based vision program that we have here in the US to distribute glasses to school children. Those are other ways that we look at as a brand holistically the impact that we’re having, how are we touching on those different stakeholders and how are we leveraging the areas where we have the most expertise and where we have the most control as a business to also have impact.
John Shegerian: Understood. Your impact report every year is publish it. What time of year do you publish that?
Hannah: Typically, it comes out in Q2. So we just published our 2022 report in April, and that was our fifth report. So we started reporting when we were a private in 2018. We have since gone public and every year we issue this report in adherence with the GRI or Global Reporting Initiative framework. Then we also have a United Nation Sustainable Development Goals Index, ASSB summary, and then just lots of beautiful imagery and narrative about our holistic impact as a company.
John Shegerian: And the impact reports can be found on warbyparker.com?
Hannah: Correct. Yes. I believe if you scroll to the footer, there’s a page called Impact and Equity, and you can find it there along with an executive summary if you don’t feel like reading the full 75 description.
John Shegerian: Hannah, you mentioned your B corporation. For our listeners and viewers out there who aren’t clear on what is a B corporation, can you share a little bit about what that really means versus typical corporations that exist like LLCs and another type of corporations?
Hannah: Yeah, definitely. So we are incorporated as a public benefit corporation. And so that is a legal status like an LLC or a C corp, where you are legally held to certain standards of balancing, accountability and transparency. It comes with additional kind of ways in which you can have a stakeholder impact as a corporation. As a certified B Corp, that is a third-party validation that is issued by the nonprofit B Lab that certifies that we are meeting a certain level of verified accountability and transparency when it comes to employment practices, social impact initiatives, environmental sustainability, all kinds of things. So we are both a public benefit corporation as well as a certified B Corp.
John Shegerian: Got it. Hannah, you also mentioned one of the many hats that you wear is you’re the executive director of the Warby Parker Impact Foundation, which I love the name of course. What does that really mean though? What does the Impact Foundation do, Hannah?
Hannah: Yeah, so we launched the Impact Foundation in 2021 in tandem with our direct listing, and it’s really the goal of the foundation, in keeping with the mission of the company to improve access to eyecare and vision for all. So the foundation is provided with resources by the company, but it is a separate nonprofit. It issues its own grants. To date, we’ve provided funding to various nonprofits working in the vision care space. We’ve provided funding for research around myopia and various initiatives such as that. So yeah, it’s been really interesting to look at that through the lens of what the company can do and then also what a nonprofit is able to do and how we can use both the company and the nonprofit to help advance this bigger problem lack of access to eyecare around the world. And so yeah, as I mentioned, that’s been around for the past couple of years.
John Shegerian: If you’ve just joined us, we’ve got Hannah Kowalski with us today. She’s the director of Social Innovation at Warby Parker. To find Hannah and all of her colleagues and the great work they’re doing at Warby Parker, please go to www.warbyparker.com. You could also find their impact reports there as well. Hannah, what keeps you up at night? What’s the most challenging part of your job in terms of everything, all the different hats that you wear in social innovation and impact with the foundation or otherwise? What’s the toughest thing that you worry about on a regular basis?
Hannah: That’s a great question, and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the toughest thing about my role, but sometimes I take a step back and I think about, as I mentioned, a billion people around the world don’t have the glasses that they need. When you think about that on such a large scale, it can be a little daunting. And things like 13 million pairs of glasses distributed through by a pair, give a pair is amazing, but clearly there’s so much more work to be done. Right now we’re working on kind of a longer term expansion strategy for our pupils project program, which is a subset of our buy pair, give a pair program that’s based here in the States where we work with different government agencies and nonprofit partners to provide vision care to kids in schools. That program has been incredible, and we’ve provided over 220,000 pairs of glasses to kids through that program. We partnered with Johns Hopkins to do a study on the academic impact of those glasses. And the learning gains from a pair of glasses is amazing, but especially during COVID when schools were closed and we weren’t able to operate the program, there were a lot of… and you can see this in the news, a lot of learning loss and things like that. So sometimes I’ll find myself thinking about these bigger issues that we’re trying to help combat, and it can be a little daunting, but also very exciting to think about, okay, this is why we’re doing this work. But sometimes it can be a challenge to take such a big problem and be like, okay, here’s how we can go about trying to tackle it or at least do our part.
John Shegerian: Got it. Hannah, for the rookies, like me, I’m 60 years old now and I realized that I’m having a massive amount of trouble reading small print, but I’ve never used Warby Parker. Can you just walk us through… I’m such an old school guy. I’m used to walking into an eyeglass store, but I don’t even have time right now to make it into an eyeglass store. So talk about the convenience and how easy is it to use Warby Parker because I myself am interested and I’ve never used it before. So just walk a rookie through the process.
Hannah: Yeah. So the good news is there are a number of ways that we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible. As I mentioned, we have over 200 retail stores, but we also started as an online business. We have what’s called our home try-on program where you can go onto our website and pick five frames to be sent to you at your house, free of charge, no credit card required. You can try on those frames, see what styles you might like, and then send them back and place an order online. We also have a virtual try-on option on our app where if you have an iPhone, you can open up the app and it uses basically kind of like a filter if you’ve seen that on social media to put the different pairs of glasses on your face and they look very realistic, you can try them on that way. Then obviously if you need a prescription, we offer eye exams. You can see when you look at our store page on our website where we have eye doctors and you can book an exam, and then we also offer some virtual vision tests and things like if you meet certain criteria, renewing your prescription through your computer, things like that.
John Shegerian: Cool. So right now, what’s the business flow like? I’d be fascinated, without giving you exact numbers, what percentage of your business is online? What percentage of your business is offline right now?
Hannah Kowalski: Yeah. Honestly, I don’t know the details of that. I don’t think I can speak to that exactly.
John Shegerian: That’s okay. It’s a business question that’s not an impact question. That’s not a social innovation question. I was just fascinated by how the model has evolved and Warby Parker’s become a huge brand. I remember when it launched.
Hannah: Yeah, if you’re interested in that, we do have our next quarterly earnings call next week, but…
John Shegerian: That’s okay.
Hannah: E-comm is definitely still a big piece of the business, but we’ve been continuing to open more and more retail stores and have well over 200 at this point.
John Shegerian: Got it. Talk about innovation a little bit. The big talk now, if we turn on Bloomberg or CNBC or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, is AI going to play a role in future innovation at Warby Parker, and if so, how?
Hannah: Yeah, I can’t speak to how it’s being used on the broader company level in terms of my work. I’ve tried to play around with and leverage some of the different AI tools that are out there to assist with even just finding information or getting answers to questions that historically has been really challenging to get answers on through just basic searches. I think that’s where I found it really helpful. For example, for some of this school project expansion, it’s been really a lot of manual time combing through school district records and academic studies and things like that, and I’ve been able to leverage some of the tools to help point me in the right direction of like, okay, I’m going to ask this question and I’m going to say, give me the academic sources that you’re citing for it, and it’s a split second, it does a lot of that initial work for me, and obviously you have to do a lot of verification, but I found it really useful in just that capacity. So I’m intrigued to see kind of how it impacts things on a broader level, but that’s kind of how I’ve been using it to date.
John Shegerian: Hannah, I’ve been doing this show about 16 years or so, and we’ve interviewed over 2000 guests and I got to meet some of the coolest people on the planet. This is before they were director of sustainability or chief sustainability officers or director of social innovation or director social impact. Where do you draw your inspiration from, and is the social innovation impact sustainability world, the fraternity that I’d like to think that it is, and does everybody help one another in terms of both inspiration and also information?
Hannah: Definitely I would say I have found even just over the past few years, the cohort of people in this space seems to be growing rapidly and the amount of people who are in similar roles that I talked to at other brands or there are a number of different resource groups for people in this space, whether it’s people in my area or there’s a woman in CSR group or things like that, that I’ve found really helpful in just continuing to learn from others about what they are doing. I’ve found that people are really eager to share best practices and to share learnings and to be connected to other folks who are working on this. It seems to me to be a pretty excited and passionate group of people, and people have been really generous with their time, and I try to pay that forward by talking to anybody who reaches out to me to try to learn about what we’re doing at Warby Parker, but I’ve definitely found that it’s a really great community, and even though there aren’t necessarily huge teams of people in this function, at most companies, there are typically a couple of people, and talking to those folks has been tremendously helpful for me,.
John Shegerian: There’ll be a lot of young people that listen and watch this show that say, man, Hannah’s got a cool job. I want to be the next Hannah Kowalski when I get out of high school, but I don’t know what the right path is, or when I get out of college, I don’t know what the right path is. If you could talk to your 18 year old self or even your 22 year old self, what advice would you give the next generation of director of social innovations or director of impacts or chief sustainability officers of young folks that want to not only just earn a paycheck, but they know they need to make money, but they also really want to make the world a better place like you’re doing?
Hannah: I think I would say really just continue to be curious and also build skills that are applicable regardless of what you’re focusing on or what you’re doing. I think one of the things that kind of stressed me out as I was in high school and then into college was I had a very liberal arts education. I majored in international and global studies, which was very broad, and at times I was a little just intimidated to be like, I don’t have specific functional expertise that I can go apply this to. I think what my career has shown me is that actually all of those foundational skills that I was building through that type of education have been applicable in all of these contexts and things like knowing specific functional topics or specific expertise on X, Y, and Z can be built and you need to continue to learn, but also if you approach things with a curious mindset and also have the tools in your toolbox to really tackle anything, whether it’s the creative thinking and the writing and the collaboration skills and kind of those more soft skills, at least for me, those have set me up very well, even though necessarily, I was not an expert on renewable energy credits when I started my job. Things like that.
John Shegerian: Interesting. What’s next for you and Warby Parker? Obviously, you’re still a young company and you’re growing. What are you and your colleagues most excited about in terms of upcoming initiatives that you could talk about, Hannah?
Hannah: Yeah. One thing that I’m excited about is in a couple of weeks we will be launching our pupils project program in New Jersey, which is great. We’re going to be in four cities across the state, and we’re a New York City based company, so it’s right in our backyard and just excited to continue to be able to serve more students with the vision care that they need. We have some exciting donation milestones coming up that we’re looking forward to sharing with our team and with our customers. Yeah, just really looking forward to continuing to build out that longer term pupils project expansion strategy, as I mentioned, and also continuing to review and put out new grants from the foundation.
John Shegerian: Got it. I’m so grateful for your time today, Hannah. This has been wonderful. I always knew Warby Parker was a great company doing great things because of the buy a pair, give a pair program, but you guys go far wider and deeper and all the great impacts you’re making on the planet. For our listeners and viewers to find Hannah and her colleagues at Warby Parker, please go to www.warbyparker.com. Hannah, thanks for making the world a better place. Thanks for all the innovation that you’re doing and social impact that you’re making, and thanks for being our guest today of the Impact podcast. You’re always welcome to come back.
Hannah: Thanks so much for having me. It was really nice speaking with you.
John Shegerian: This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry with thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com. This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.
Warby Parker is about to hit 15 million pairs of glasses distributed through their Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program this year!