Jordan Kassalow: Social Entrepreneurs Serve People, Not Problems

A blind child who wasn’t really blind opened Jordan Kassalow’s eyes to a global problem—the lack of affordable, quality eyewear and vision services in developing countries—and led to the creation of a highly successful social enterprise that helps people with impaired vision worldwide.

VisionSpring partners with governments, non-governmental organizations, purpose-driven businesses and private businesses to distribute eyeglasses to those who need them around the world.

According to VisionSpring’s website, 2.5 billion people could have their vision restored with the right pair of eyeglasses, and 90 percent of those living with uncorrected vision are in lower-income countries. The company cites a Lancet study that found eyeglasses have the potential to increase worker productivity by up to 32 percent.

Ninety percent of people living with unrestored vision are in low-income countries, according to social enterprise VisionSpring.

Kassalow encountered the problem as a first-year optometry student serving on a volunteer medical mission in the Yucatan Peninsula. “My very first patient ever—a seven-year-old boy named Raul—helped me discover a problem hiding in plain sight,” he said in a recent interview with fellow social entrepreneur Willy Foote, founder and CEO of Root Capital, for Forbes.com. “When Raul sat down in the exam chair, his mother explained that he had been blind since birth. Upon further examination, however, we realized that Raul was not blind but actually needed an especially strong eyeglass prescription to see. Seeing that this boy’s entire future hinged on a simple pair of eyeglasses lit a fire in my belly that has never gone out.”

Kassalow has written a book, “Dare to Matter: Your Path to Making a Difference Now,” to help aspiring social entrepreneurs and other changemakers uncover their hidden talents and use them to improve the world.

“A social entrepreneur is someone who is drawn to a problem, often an invisible one,” he said in the Forbes interview. “Yet the reason the social entrepreneur sees that problem is because it’s something that gets stuck in your craw—something that resonates on a level so deep that, once you allow it to take up space in your being, you find that it would be impossible for you to stop trying to address it. While a social entrepreneur must move from the heart space to the head space to start chipping away at an entrenched social need, the heart will always be the engine that keeps you moving forward, especially when the task seems too great.”

This little girl in Chilanga, Zambia, enjoys her new eyeglasses from VisionSpring.

Kassalow notes that “building a social enterprise is also about building a movement,” adding, “In order to iterate, leverage and scale, a social entrepreneur’s heart and soul investment is what empowers you to communicate the need in a totally organic way, a genuine way that is contagious. It gives you the tools to bring in multiple partners and stakeholders across every sector that will own the problem as their challenge, too.”

Other highlights from the interview:

* Social entrepreneurs serve people, not problems. Kassalow says social entrepreneurs are “servants first, people who are committed to creating the conditions for human flourishing, for every single member of the human family to have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.” He says being a servant leader—which includes really listening to others and observing carefully—has helped him make VisionSpring a success.

* Develop partnerships. “It all comes back to partnerships,” Kassalow said. “I learned early on in VisionSpring’s life that your ability to scale is only as good as your ability to partner wisely. Knowing when to lead, when to walk side-by-side and when to follow the lead of others has been, and remains, a key to VisionSpring’s success.”

* Radical change is not required. Purpose-led entrepreneurs might be tempted to make radical moves in their lives—such as changing careers—to find the money to achieve social impact. “But it’s actually about doing simple things, asking yourself simple questions that help you clarify what you value the most … and then consciously building a life that aligns with your vision over time,” Kassalow said. “And it’s about making sure that some part of the time you spend on earth gets allocated to doing something—whatever you choose, whatever chooses you, whether for an hour a week or 15 minutes a day—for someone or something far greater than you.”

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