Handout to hand-up: Social Entrepreneur Kassalow recounts personal journey to founding eye-care startup

Author: Angela Sienko

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You might say the way the third annual Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference kicked off was eye opening: It began Wednesday evening with keynote speaker Dr. Jordan Kassalow, O.D., M.P.H., who has dedicated his life to providing eye care to the world’s poor.

Conference attendees, Notre Dame students, faculty and staff filled the Jordan Auditorium at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business to hear Kassalow discuss the path that led him to found VisionSpring, a not-for-profit social business that ensures access to affordable eye wear to anyone who needs it.

The 2014 Irish Impact conference, which takes place Sept. 17-19, gathers social entrepreneurs from around the globe to network and learn from some of the top thought leaders. The event is organized by the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship in partnership with Fellow Irish Social Hub (FISH), an independent, nonprofit organization that invites Notre Dame students, faculty, alumni and local community members to help develop socially innovative ideas into for-purpose enterprises.

Kassalow began his talk by telling the story of his personal journey that eventually led to the founding of VisionSpring—a journey that began more than 20 years ago, when Kassalow, then 23, was traveling across the Alaskan wilderness with two friends.

“Midway through the trip, we found ourselves deep in the Brooks Mountain Range pummeled by horizontal rains that drove us into our tent,” Kassalow remembers.

After two days of being stuck inside the tent, he’d had enough and decided to venture out by himself. He hiked for three hours to get to the top of one of the myriad of formidable mountains nearby. The summit was well above the tree line, and he found himself alone on the mountaintop, confronted with high winds and driving rains. He was awed and humbled by the enormity of the universe.

“It was in this moment that I had that pivotal experience many have when it becomes painfully obvious just how small and insignificant we are in this world,” he says. “But at 23, I was not ready to resign myself to a life of insignificance—I wanted to matter.”

That moment stayed with him, and as pursued he optometric studies, Kassalow continued to grapple with this idea of how to lead a life that mattered. That’s when he learned of a trip to Mexico to participate in a medical mission, and jumped at the opportunity.

“On the first day of the trip, we arrived at our site to find 2,000 people in line waiting to have their eyes checked,” Kassalow remembers. “One of those in line was a 7-year-old boy who was carrying a braille book.”

The boy’s family explained that he was blind, but as Kassalow started to examine his eyes, he realized the boy was just extremely myopic. His prescription was a -20.00D and, incredibly, the medical team was able to fit him with a pair of donated glasses with a -19 prescription.

“As I placed the glasses on the boy’s nose, I watched as the blank stare of a blind person transformed into an expression of unadulterated joy. I was witnessing someone seeing the world for the first time,” Kassalow says. “This was a defining experience in my life. I gave this boy his vision, and, in a remarkable way, he gave me mine. I decided then and there that if I could replicate that moment 1,000 times over I would have led a meaningful life.”

Ten years into the business, VisionSpring has a salesforce that is 20,000 strong, and they are closing in on their 2 millionth customer—500,000 of whom were reached in 2013 alone.

In addition to VisionSpring, Kassalow 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.

Kassalow is a Draper Richards Kaplan, Skoll and Ashoka Fellow, as well as a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Recently, he was named one of the Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneurs and made the list of Forbes magazine’s Impact 30.  He is the inaugural winner of the John P. McNulty Prize, the 2006 winner of BYU’s Innovator Award and received Duke University’s Social Innovation Award on behalf of VisionSpring. VisionSpring is also a three-time winner of Fast-Company’s Social Capitalist Award.

The 2014 Irish Impact Conference continues through Friday, Sept. 19, and is open to students, staff and faculty. The conference features a number of practitioners speaking on topics including:

·        Human-centered Design and Design Thinking

·        The Intersection of Big Data with Social Enterprise

·        The Social Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

·        How to Bridge the Funding Gap

The conference concludes on Friday morning with the Zielsdorf Family Pitch Competition. Social enterprise practitioners will pitch their ideas to a panel of potential investors, providing a glimpse into the world of social venture finance. Winners of the combined prizing of $10,000 will be announced at the conclusion of the Zielsdorf Family Pitch Competition.

FISH offers incubation services to social entrepreneurs ready to launch their ventures. In partnership with Innovation Park at Notre Dame, FISH provides world-class facilities and critical occupational services, as well as valuable research and development tools. Its nine-month business incubator program is designed to prepare each client to launch a social enterprise and to maximize its social impact.

The Gigot Center was founded in 1998 for the purpose of fostering innovation. Through rigorous coursework, the center’s business plan competitions, extensive networking and mentorship, and hands-on learning experiences provide students with the knowledge and skills vital to traditional and social entrepreneurship.

For more information about the Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference, visit irishimpact.nd.edu

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