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Big Ideas: Dare To Matter with Dr. Jordan Kassalow

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Jordan Kassalow. Jordan Kassalow is the Founder of VisionSpring, and of the EYElliance.  He is the author of DARE TO MATTER (Kensington Books). Jordan also founded Scojo New York and the Global Health Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Prior to his position at the Council, he […]

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Jordan Kassalow. Jordan Kassalow is the Founder of VisionSpring, and of the EYElliance.  He is the author of DARE TO MATTER (Kensington Books). Jordan also founded Scojo New York and the Global Health Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Prior to his position at the Council, he served as Director of the River Blindness Division at Helen Keller International.  Jordan is a fellow of Draper Richards Kaplan, Skoll, Ashoka, and is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. He was named one of the Schwab Foundation’s 2012 Social Entrepreneurs, was the inaugural winner of the John P. McNulty Prize, and was recently was named to Forbes Impact 30. VisionSpring has been internationally recognized by the Skoll Foundation, the Aspen Institute, and the World Bank; is a three-time winner of Fast-Company’s Social Capitalist Award; and a winner of Duke University’s Enterprising Social Innovation Award.  Additionally, Jordan is a partner at Drs. Farkas, Kassalow, Resnick & Associates, a leading contact lens and laser specialty practice in Manhattan.  Jordan earned a Doctorate of Optometry from the New England College of Optometry and a Fellowship in Preventive Ophthalmology and Masters in Public Health from Johns Hopkins.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was a young man, around 23 years old, I had a sort of existential crisis. I wanted to make a big difference in the world, but didn’t know how to do it. I had a mountain-top moment where I basically proclaim to the world that I was going to matter. Truth be told, I had no idea how to make that happen. 

Six months later, I enrolled in optometry school to be an eye doctor. As a first year student, I joined an organization that brought eye care to underserved populations in Mexico. My first patients was a seven year old boy named Raul. Raul grew up believing he was blind. But when we looked into his eyes, we realized he wasn’t blind at all, he just needed a very strong pair of eyeglasses. 

I was the person who got to put the glasses on his face for the first time. You can imagine when he saw clearly for the first time, how it fundamentally changed his life as well as mine. We’ve both been forever touched by that moment. That was really the moment when I discovered how I could matter and I started on this career path of trying to help people see so that they can live to their full potential. 

Can you tell usabout your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

The big idea came from that experience. When I returned home, it became clear to me that this boy was far from alone. I discovered that there were more than a billion people in the world who were visually impaired or blind, not because of an eye disease, but just because they needed a pair of glasses to see optimally. So, our big idea is to radically scale our ability to provide affordable and high quality eye care and eye care products to underserved people throughout the world.

How does the big idea tie into your new book?

It ties really well into the book Dare To Matter: Your Path to Making a Difference Nowthat Jennifer Krause and I wrote together. It is going to be released April 30th. The whole idea behind the book is that it is extremely important to live a life that honors two fundamental human needs. The first is to take care of yourself and your family. The second is to live a life that takes care of others beyond yourself. 

I knew that practicing as an eye doctor was going to be a pathway where I can provide for myself and my family. It became very evident that it was not enough to truly live a fully integrated and meaningful life. I needed to also figure out how to take care of people like Raul.

The book, and my work at Vision Spring, is an expression of how you can make a difference in someone else’s life while honoring the fundamental need to take care of ourselves.

How do you think this will change the world?

Vision is incredibly important to human potential and human capital. Vision is one of the most treasured sense for humans. 80% of our sensory input comes through our eyes. 

Without vision, it’s hard to learn. Children with poor vision often fall out of school,and adults with poor vision often fall out of the workplace.  

One of the leading cause of death in developing world is road traffic accidents, and 59% of them have a visual component associated with them. 

So the big idea is that vision is critical to learning, to productivity, to livelihoods, to safety. If we can democratize vision, bridge the gap between those who have vision and those who don’t, we can change the world. 

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Actually, when I was reading this question, it made me think of a similar TV show called ‘The Twilight Zone.’ There was an episode where a man who wore glasses (played by Cesar Romero-the ‘Joker’ from Batman) was a voracious reader who loved to read. He didn’t really like people, and he wished everyone would disappear. Then there was some kind of explosion, and he was in New York. Everyone was gone. When he came out from his hiding spot, he found himself in front of the New York Public Library. He was so excited to spend the rest of his life digging into the books, not bothered by humans.

But, as he bent to pick up his first book, his glasses fell off his face and the lenses shattered. He lost his ability to see, and this is where the show ends. You see him in this huge library with millions of  books, yet unable to read a single one of them!

And in a way, it relates to unintended consequences. I often think of Raul. What if we provided him with those glasses for the first time, and in six months, or a year, or whenever it may be, he loses or breaks them, and we haven’t created a sustainable supply chain so that he can get his future glasses. Did we really do him a favor? So, the unintended consequences is that once we provide people with their first vision, we are obligated to provide them with their second and third pair, and to create a sustainable supply chain.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Yes, there is a ‘tipping point’, and we share a little bit of this in Dare to Matter. It involved a woman farmer from Central Cameroon. At that time, I was working on a disease called ‘river blindness.’ I traveled throughout Central and West Africa, providing medicine for people suffering from the disease. And where-ever I visited, I asked the people what they needed most. As you can imagine, the list was quite long, and it had obvious things like better healthcare, education, clean water, and so forth. But what really stopped me in my tracks is when the woman farmer said “We really only need one thing, and that is opportunity. Because if we have opportunity, we can be self-reliant, we can have education, we can have healthcare, and we can have clean water.” And that was when the proverbial light bulb happened, and I made the connection between glasses and opportunity. 

Glasses are an opportunity for a child to learn. Glasses are an opportunity for adults to stay in the workforce and prosper. Glasses are an opportunity for someone to get from point A to point B safely. 

What was your inspiration behind starting VisionSpring?

From my travels in Latin America and later India and Africa, I observed that the biggest need for glasses were the 40 something year old individual who had started to lose their close up vision. Many of these people were earning their living with their eyes and hands, who were weavers, tailors, artisans and mechanics. If you took them out of the workforce because they could no longer see, it had a very detrimental impact on them, on their families, and on their communities at large.

At the same time, everywhere I went, I observed that there were a lot of underemployed people, particularly women.

So, the original idea was to focus on simple reading glasses, and to see if we could train local women to screen for vision impairment and sell simple glasses to their neighbors. This way, the women would have an opportunity to get new jobs, and people who buy the glasses are able to sustain their career. 

We started out with 18 women in India, and we sold over 800 pairs of glasses in our first year. Fast forward now, we have over 30,000 women world-wide. Between them and our other business units we sold close to 1.2 million pairs of glasses in 2018..

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

It is twofold. One is the idea of democratizing vision. The other is how to integrate both money and meaning into ones career. 

For the eyeglasses, it is critical to get governments and private sector involved. You’ve got to get ministries of health, education, transportation, labor, and corporations behind this effort.

The other idea we want to spread widely through our book Dare to Matter, is that daring to matter boils down to 2 beliefs: that the future can be better than the present, and that you have the power to make it so.   The more people who read and understand that message, the better chance the ideas will lead to widespread adoption.

What are your “3-5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

  1. It’s all about the people, not the problem. One of the most powerful stories in the book is about a women I met in Colombia  named Noka. She was known in her village as the blind lady, and she spent a full day in a canoe to come to our clinic. And sure enough, she couldn’t see at all. But the good news is, like Raul, her vision was entirely correctable with a very strong pair of glasses. We put the glasses on her face, and we were all very proud of ourselves. She was able to see for the first time in her life. Three days later, she returns with complaints that the people in her village laughed at her and ostracized her because her glasses looked so funny. And she was right—the glasses were 1950’s cat eyeglasses with rhinestones. We explained that those were the only pair that we had available in her prescription. When she heard that, she did something that shocked us. She took her glasses off, and she left them behind, and she went up the river blind. That stopped me in my tracks. When someone chooses blindness over your solution, you’ve got a problem, and you need to do something about it. This is an example of putting the problem in front of the person.
  2. It’s all about partnerships. In our book, we talk about how if you are trying to matter, and you are trying to affect big changes in the world, you are not going to be able to do it yourself. You’ve got to partner wisely and intentionally. When we first started VisionSpring, we were trying to do everything on our own. We identified women entrepreneurs, trained them, managed them, supplied them with glasses. Then we discovered an organization in Bangladesh called Brac. Brac already had an incredible network of community health workers selling health products in their community. All we would need to do is train them on how to screen for vision problems and sell reading glasses. And we did. Through our partnerships, our numbers and scale just took off.
  3. Mentorship. And I mean mentorship across all generations. It’s really helpful to be mentored by people who are 10 or 30 years older than you, and who have seen and  done. But it is just as helpful to be mentored by people younger than you who have new and fresh perspectives. I always try to surround myself by mentors both older and younger than me.
  4. It’s never that easy. When I first started, I thought selling glasses was going to be a piece of cake and that they would fly off the shelf like cell phones. What we realized is that there can be a lot of cultural nuances. For example, girls of marriageable age in India thought they were less marriageable if they had glasses. In Cambodia, Pol Pot killed many intellectuals, and there are images of giant mounds of glasses collected from the executed. In their minds wearing glasses can equate to being killed. We learned to understand cultural biases, regulatory challenges, supply chain, and the entire system that we are trying to address. 

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

  1. It’s very human to want to take care of yourself. It’s also equally human, if not more, to want to take care of others. A life that integrates these two is a full life, and one that everyone aspires to. As Heschel said, happiness is the certainly of being needed in the world. 
  2. Practice dying. This principle is very core to what we do. It’s about the ability to realize that we are not going to be here forever, and we don’t really know how long we are going to be here. There’s an urgency to living a life, and living a life that has meaning and that matters. A key goal of Dare to Matter is to help people realize earlier what really matters in life so they have more time to do something of significance with that knowledge.
  3. Gratitude. Practice gratitude, feel grateful to those who are making your life richer, or helping your vision or big idea come to life.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @visionspring

Linked In: /company/VisionSpring

Facebook: @visionspring

Website: www.visionspring.orgTwitter @jkassalow

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