Handout to hand-up: Social Entrepreneur Kassalow recounts personal journey to founding eye-care startup
Published: September 19, 2014 / Author: Angela Sienko
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
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
“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:
Design and Design Thinking
Intersection of Big Data with Social Enterprise
Social Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
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.
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