Young entrepreneurs started Panda Sunglasses — a collection of sustainable, handcrafted sunglasses made out of bamboo — and paired with the Tribal Medical Outreach Association.
Vincent Ko, Luke Lagera and Michael Mills wanted to help change the world.
The three friends and recent Georgetown University graduates were inspired to create an alternative to plastic and metal sunglasses, but wanted their company to have a significant social impact at the same time. Finally an idea struck: Panda Sunglasses, a collection of sustainable, handcrafted sunglasses made out of bamboo.
The trio partnered with the Tribal Medical Outreach Association (TOMA) — an organization that provides free eye examinations and other health services for tribal communities — and took their idea to Kickstarter in 2011, raising $20,000 in just three days.
A following of socially conscious consumers and support from boutiques and retailers like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie soon followed.
Just over a year later, the company has helped fund more than 1,000 eye examinations and free eyeglasses through the TOMA Foundation.
“We want Panda to be a recognizable brand for social change,” Ko said. “So when someone sees Panda, they know that for everything that is purchased through the company, an individual in need or a charitable organization will benefit.”
The founders don’t hide the influence that successful social brands like TOMS — a company that donates one pair of shoes for each pair purchased — had on germinating the idea for their company.
“We figured if we could make a fraction of the impact that (TOMS founder) Blake Mycoskie made with a different item, we’d be doing a good job,” Ko said.
The importance of combining profit with social impact has been embraced by businesses big and small over the past few years. Industry titans like Starbucks and Nordstrom have made social responsibility an integral part of their marketing plans, but in the world of young start-ups, entrepreneurs are still figuring out how to keep the model as authentic and transparent as possible.
“It’s difficult to be a social entrepreneur because you have two goals you want to achieve; you have a cause you are promoting, but still want to make money,” said Sarika Gupta, the student program manager at the University of Michigan’s Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.
As more Millennials enter college and start businesses, finding ways to satisfy both economic and social bottom lines has captured the attention of business programs across the country, said Cheryl Kiser, the executive director for Babson College’s Lewis Institute and Social Innovation Lab.
Babson College has been recognized as the top entrepreneurship college in the country for more than 20 years by U.S. News and World Report, a title strengthened by its innovative programs and an alumni base that includes the founders of Home Depot and Lycos. It offers just two degrees: a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in the same subject.
When educating the next wave of social entrepreneurs, Babson teaches students to seek out social problem opportunities and think of business ideas to solve them.
“We are at a time when people want to marry what they do for a living with a personal purpose for doing it,” Kiser said. “More people are designing products and services to have social responsibility and relevance built in from the beginning, and it’s changing the way we think about things.”
A greater focus on collaboration is prompting entrepreneurs to branch out and partner with professionals from different backgrounds, resulting in a cross-pollination of problem-solving methods. Kiser says the method is paying off, especially for social sectors — such as healthcare and food production — that are in need of innovation.
“Collaboration in both thought and action always ends up producing a greater value than trying to do something on your own,” Kiser said. “By cultivating unusual relationships and curating actions to solve problems, the opportunity to change the way we do things is greater than ever.”
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