The future looked bright for Anna Smirnova in the Spring of 2011. She just moved from Minsk, Belarus to NYC to marry the love of her life (who she met at an American Marketing Association trade show just a couple of years before), landed a job at a digital marketing company in New York City, and she was now seven months pregnant with her first child, a girl. Anna’s mother was planning to visit just before the baby was born and help with the big changes that come with a newborn. But life had different plans.
Anna’s mother had just been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a deadly type of cancer that begins in plasma cells (the white blood cells that produce antibodies) and start accumulating in the bone marrow, where they slowly, deliberately crowd out healthy blood cells. Anna’s mother had to cancel her trip and immediately begin chemotherapy.
“Doctors were giving my mom on average 60 pills per day, and droppers with anti-cancer treatment drugs,” Anna says, with tears in her eyes as she recalls the painful memory, “these drugs literally burn a body from inside in an attempt to kill the cancer, but unfortunately those drugs kill everything. The entire treatment was a total nightmare. I saw my mom suffering from excruciating pain and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
In the weeks that followed, Anna gave birth to her beautiful baby girl, Eva, in August. But the dark cloud of Anna’s mother’s cancer dampened what should have been a time of unmitigated joy. Anna travelled back and forth from New York to Belarus to be by her mother’s side as she struggled bravely, but cancer was a formidable opponent.
After two years of non-stop treatments, her mother went into a period of remission that lasted almost a year. But no sooner had this hopeful rest lifted the spirits of Anna’s young family, but the cancer returned. This time it was even more vengeful, spreading at a rapid speed, decimating her mother’s healthy blood cells.
“I was losing my mom, my best friend,” Anna says, her voice quivering with emotion, “and it felt like I was losing nearly everything else. We spent five years fighting this cancer. We spent all of our savings. All of the money my father, my husband, and I were making, including credit cards went to her treatment. Some of the pills cost up to $5000 per pill, droppers start from $400 per piece, and a patient may need ten per week. The cancer that was killing my mom was destroying us, too.”
Anna’s savings were depleted. Her credit cards maxed out. She was depressed and exhausted. A junior digital marketing executive’s salary was not going to be enough, not in New York City and certainly not with the late payment penalties, interest charges, collections calls and overdue bill notices filling her mailbox.
Anna was desperate for a change – a chance to do something independently which would give her more time to be with her ailing mom, more time to be at home for her own young family and a chance, however remote it might have seemed at the time, to rebuild her personal finances.
Anna had always been an “ideas” person. It was part of what attracted her to marketing in the first place. She had worked on brand strategy for an eyewear startup in her digital marketing job. Anna had learned operations, marketing and pricing for the eyewear industry inside and out. Warby Parker was an early inspiration. She realized, with perhaps a touch of overconfidence, that she was one of a small handful of people who had the knowledge, background and skills to start a successful eyewear business from scratch, but she didn’t have any money.
Friends and family had already given what they could and Anna didn’t know where else to turn. It would have been easy to give up. Most people would have. But Anna isn’t most people and she decided that the best way to honor her sick mother was to keep fighting.
A couple of months later, Anna went into the city for a doctor’s appointment for her daughter. By chance, she knocked on the door of a corporate attorney, who had an office on the same floor, to ask a couple of questions about new business formation. The lawyer was taken with the concept and charmed by the determined young entrepreneur who stood before him, passionately describing her vision for a designer eyewear company with a social conscience. “Then magic happened,” says Anna, “he agreed to invest with his partners in my project. I couldn’t believe this happened. I’d never met this person before, yet in about an hour he was ready to become my angel investor.”
Anna’s mother lost her courageous battle with cancer in the beginning of 2016, but she had held on long enough to see her daughter open several international locations for her new eyewear brand, launch a new Website and her first line of designer eyeglasses.
The death of her mother had a major impact on the future of her new business. “Returning to America, heartbroken, I clearly felt that something changed deep inside my heart,” Anna says now, “I didn’t only want to make a good business. I wanted to build my company in a socially responsible way to help people suffering from cancer. This disease is not only life-altering for the entire family, it’s very expensive and many people cannot afford treatment. For that reason, we renamed our company Eyezz.com because the whole experience of fighting for my mother’s life opened my eyes to a problem that can happen to anyone. It made me a completely different person. Visiting my mother in the hospital, I looked in the eyes of children sick with cancer. I saw the eyes of their parents full of pain and despair. I saw so much pain and fear while taking care of my mother during five consecutive years. I will never be able to forget it.”
Anna decided her new company would donate a portion of the profits to help families with children with cancer. Eyezz.com partnered with The St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a volunteer and donor powered charity dedicated to raising money for lifesaving childhood cancer research.
St. Baldrick’s has funded more than $234 million toward cancer research.
Eyezz.com is an online store, authorized by Luxottica, Kerring, Marcolin and Marchon to sell officially licensed Ray-Ban, Prada, Versace, Persol, Gucci and over 100 other well-known and quality eyewear brands, with a portion of every sale going to charity.
Anna co-owns and manages a New York-based optical laboratory, and unlike most other optical retailers, Eyezz is able to handle lens adjustments and installations on-house. “It is much easier to attract people with a great deal than with a great cause,” says Anna, “but by combining both, we hope to raise awareness and money to help win the battle against pediatric cancer and build a successful brand at the same time.”
In the ultra-competitive U.S. optical market, Eyezz.com is a unique success story. A woman-owned business in a male-dominated market, challenging big corporate eyewear franchises with much larger advertising and marketing budgets and steadfastly refusing the temptation to sell knockoffs or cheaply made frames and lenses from China.
But if you look closely, Eyezz.com has something most businesses don’t. A mission to help people see clearly and a founding executive who was able to transform her mother’s terminal diagnosis into a tremendous business.