Adlens’ Owner Balances Commerce With Philanthropy

NEWSMAKER/James Chen

By
 
James Chen
The phrase, “Think globally, act locally,” comes to mind when meeting James Chen. An international business executive and a philanthropist, Chen co-founded Adlens, a variable focus lens company and Vision For a Nation, an innovative non-profit non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides universal access to eyeglasses.

Vision For a Nation is currently focused on providing eyewear to everyone in Rwanda who needs it. The organization is partly funded through Adlens’ Buy One Give One program, which donates a pair of glasses to someone in the developing world for every Adlens Hemisphere or John Lennon eyeglass purchased. As Vision For a Nation grows, Chen and his colleagues plan to expand its activities to other countries.

Chen is also the chairman of Wahum Group Holdings, based in Lagos, Nigeria, a family enterprise that manufactures enamelware, building materials and cardboard packaging. He serves as CEO of Family Office Legacy Advisors Ltd. and his family’s venture philanthropy arm, the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, which has supported more than 150 education initiatives in mainland China, Hong Kong and West Africa.

Additionally, Chen chairs The Chen Yet-Sen Foundation, named after his father. He is founder of the Hong Kong Chapter of Bring Me a Book, an NGO promoting early childhood literacy.

Chen recently spoke with Vision Monday’s Andrew Karp about the challenges and rewards of straddling the commercial and non-profit sectors, as well as the commitment he and his family have toward making a difference in the quality of life for people in Rwanda and elsewhere. This interview has been edited.

Vision Monday:
How did you become involved with providing eyewear for the developing world?

James Chen: It was at a meeting in 2004 with [Professor] Josh Silver at the Commonwealth Club in London. (Silver invented variable focus glasses in 1998; he co-founded Adlens with Chen in 2005.) He whipped out this pair of glasses, the one with the syringe. I twirled the knobs and realized, it works!

That was early stage technology. Josh wanted to focus on his Centre for Vision in the Developing World (non-profit foundation). At that point, I bought out a large proportion of his interest, but he remains a shareholder.

VM: Did you have the idea of linking Adlens, which is a commercial venture, with Vision For a Nation, which is a non-profit organization, from the beginning?

JC: At that time, if the sales pitch had been, “We’re going to make a lot of money doing this,” and that was it, I would never have done this. I knew this was not going to be an easy slog. The thing that really drove it for me was not just the financial bottom line, but the social bottom line. From the get-go, there’s been this idea of social enterprise. Of course, this social enterprise thing is very exciting, but it’s an evolving thing. The world is not quite ready for this idea of an enterprise that can make money and do good at the same time.

My fellow trustees on Vision For a Nation are particularly scrupulous about this. And I understand that, because if you’re trying to make money on one side, you’ve got to be sure you’re selling the product at the right price. We make a commitment for the developing world that we will sell Adlens at an extremely discounted price. We essentially absorb all the fixed costs on the commercial side, so you’re getting it at very little cost, plus a little bit just to cover the labor.

At every opportunity, we try to make sure that where we can get connection and leverage it can help on both sides. There’s no better example than Graeme [MacKenzie]. He’s the architect of the Vision For a Nation program, particularly in the early days. He’s been there [Rwanda] more than any of us. He’s worked out how it’s going to be done, the blueprint. It’s not just about providing product. We want to provide product that people want to wear.

VM: So do the people in Rwanda who are benefitting from Vision For a Nation want to look great as well as see well, just like everyone else?

JC: Yes, the design of product is as important as the design of the program.

The program is not about charity. We’re very strong on that. People have to have their dignity. We don’t give things away. The only people who will get glasses for free are the ones who are characterized as indigents by the government. And they carry a card saying they can get certain services for free. One of the things they get for free would be an assessment and an eyeglass if they need it. But everybody else in Rwanda will pay 1,000 Rwandan francs for a pair of Adlens. It’s a subsidized price.

VM: Given your involvement with other non-profit, charitable work, what were you able to learn and apply to your experience with Vision For a Nation?

 
 James Chen models a pair of Adlens Hemisphere glasses. The dials on each side are used to adjust the fluid-injection lenses and are removed once the focus is set.
JC:
It’s not about just giving money. It’s about spending the time to understand what people need, how you make an impact, how can you be successful. Too often people are very generous and they write the check, but there are unintended consequences.

VM: You and your family have roots in Africa. You grew up there. Did your experience and knowledge of the continent influence you to target an African country as opposed to a Latin American or Asian country when you were launching Vision For a Nation?

JC: No, one of our advisors, Julian Lambert, who has worked since 1991 on African health programs for the UK Department for International Development, the UN and other organizations, flagged it early on. We had done things in Ghana, Ethiopia and South Africa, but we realized we’re a small organization and don’t have the impact. We decided to concentrate it, so we picked a place where we can really make something exciting happen. At first I was skeptical, but I’ve become a convert because the government really has done a fantastic job. Their attitude and lack of corruption is impressive.

In the whole developing world, there are priorities, and the reality is that vision does not measure up because it’s deemed to be a soft issue. The hard issues are AIDS and other diseases. But we’ve also seen over the last 40 years that hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted and hasn’t made an impact. Vision is going to make an impact on productivity and on educational outcomes. But it’s very difficult to show because many things are not quantified or even quantifiable, perhaps. But vision is also about the qualitative difference, happiness, the improvement of the quality of life.

You know, the World Bank spends all this money teaching people to read, but they don’t give them glasses. So they tested our program out, and all these people came and they took the glasses. The women did this. A lot of them wanted to read the Bible. If you look at their role in the family, though, they were the ones who would cook for the family. But when you start to get presbyopia, you can’t see clearly. It’s dangerous to cook. They become a liability instead of an asset for the family, so the younger women or the girls cook. They don’t go to school or go out. There’s a ripple effect. But for the lady who didn’t have good vision to get it back, most of all she got her dignity back.

VM: So you believe Vision For a Nation is going to have a bigger impact than some of the other aid programs out there?

JC: Yes. As a family foundation, we can have more of an impact. It’s important for us to do the things that the ‘serious’ world doesn’t do. Because we’re a family, we have the discretion to say, if we think it’s going to work, we’ll do it. You don’t have to prove it to anyone else. If we see that this is bringing dignity and quality of life, we’ll do it. My family foundation works on school libraries and early childhood literacy. For that, you’ve got to have good eyesight. It’s all interrelated.

VM: Have you considered working with entrepreneurial programs such as VisionSpring that are selling eyewear products in the developing world?

JC: Our role is to get it going. With Vision For a Nation, we’re also creating a market that didn’t exist before. Many people who never had glasses before will say, “I like this, I want to have it.” What happens when their prescription changes? What about the replacement cycle? That’s not Vision For a Nation. We will be done. We deliberately designed this program so that it’s got a finite life. When we’re done, the government can continue to do it, because all the training is in place. The government has now built that into the curriculum for the nurses. So that will survive us and we’re very proud of that. But it also creates this market. And right now, there’s nobody there to fill it. You’ve got a chicken and egg situation. But now the eggs are there.

akarp@jobson.com