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UPDATE: A New Dialogue Is Taking Place Within the Optical Industry and Profession Toward Diversity and Inclusion

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NEW YORK—A growing number of companies, individuals, groups and organizations across the optical industry and vision care profession are starting to more openly address the issues of racism and institutional prejudice and to support diversity as part of their stated mission. In the past several weeks, as sustained civil protests have become very visible and vocal across major cities, suburbs and local towns throughout the U.S., executives, owners and individuals in the optical and eyecare field are grappling with a complex issue that has heightened awareness, mirroring concerns in many sectors, business, cultural and political.

The communications have taken different forms, from internal statements to employees and associates to formally posted letters of support and principle. VMAIL will continue to monitor what promises to be a new and more visible dialogue on diversity and inclusion. VMAIL has a been in contact with just a few companies and groups to date. Some are sharing their views now, and some are planning activities in the coming days and weeks.

According to Ken Bradley (Eschenbach), chair of The Vision Council since 2019, “The Vision Council strives to be the vision care leader in enabling better vision for better lives with our Mission Statement to advocate for and promote growth in the vision care industry, which is experiencing constant and rapid change. As the consumer relationship becomes more sophisticated, and lifestyles and vision care delivery methods evolve, the industry must be prepared for what is next. We must share trends, best practices and set a leadership agenda for the industry. Part of that agenda includes the strategic imperative of building the right leadership team to see the future for companies and transform our industry.

“To help guide the way, The Vision Council conducted one of the first studies of diversity in leadership for the optical industry,” he said. “The results were intended to benchmark the optical leadership landscape in 2019 and illuminate the opportunities all companies have to promote diversity, cultivate talent and improve their performance. We shared these results at our annual Executive Summit in January 2020 to more than 350 senior executives at our member companies.” A link to that study is posted here.

Said Ashley Mills, CEO, The Vision Council, “We acknowledged then—and it’s perhaps even more important to acknowledge again now—that these were baby steps. Since then, we have begun the process of establishing new, dynamic programming for both The Vision Council and the Vision Expos that is aligned with amplifying black voices, and all voices of all under-represented communities in the industry today. I promised that I would work with the membership to identify milestones and goals for our industry, and that work has begun. We have a long road ahead of us. But it’s achievable. And I believe the industry is more than ready. Actions speak louder than words and I plan to more aggressive in our rollout of these new programs to show The Vision Council is committed to just that—action.”

The Vision Council told VMAIL that those upcoming efforts include:
• An expanded diversity & inclusion in the industry survey to be fielded soon and to be issued in January 2021.
• A follow-up webinar for members with VC Exec Summit keynote speaker Frances Frei, Harvard Business School professor, a global thought leader on diversity, strategy and culture, who works to change organizational behavior (summer 2020).
• Newly created diversity & inclusion task force (to be announced late summer 2020).
• Renewed commitment with the VC board to TVC staff & TVC volunteer leadership makeup.

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Two other events happened this past week. On Wednesday, June 17 at 12:15 EDT, The Vision Council and Vision Expo hosted Open Your Eyes! Taking Steps to be an Ally of Diversity & Inclusion as part of the Virtual EYE2EYE CoffeeTalk Series. The interactive panel was a frank discussion which explored the impact of the current racial climate on the black optical community and provide ways to work together as allies in pushing a more diverse and equitable agenda forward. Moderated by Danielle Richardson, OD, the interactive panel looked at the intersection of diversity and inclusion and allyship with several vision community leaders, including Sherianne James, chief marketing officer for Essilor of America and member of The Vision Council’s board of directors; Coco and Breezy Dotson, founders at Coco and Breezy Eyewear; Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO, president of the New England College of Optometry; and Sherrol Reynolds, OD, president of the National Optometric Association. A video recap of this noteworthy session is now posted on the Eye2Eye YouTube channel here.

Yesterday, June 19, at 6:00 p.m. EDT, The Vision Council, in partnership with several eyewear designers, kicked off an Open Your Eyes frames auction during which one-of-a-kind frames will be auctioned off to benefit the Equal Justice Initiative and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.

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The Vision Council, in partnership with several designers, will host a frames auction on Friday, June 19
at 6:00 p.m. EDT during which one- of-a-kind frames will be auctioned off to benefit these two organizations.

My Brother’s Keeper Alliance (MBK) leads a cross-sector national call to action focused on building safe and supportive communities for boys and young men of color where they feel valued and have clear pathways to opportunity. The auction will be conducted through a virtual happy hour and coincides on June 19 with Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the U.S. The designers taking part in the auction include AHLEM, Anna Karin-Karlsson, Barton Perreira, Blake Kuwahara, Cazal, Christian Roth, l.a. Eyeworks, Morgenthal Frederics & Robert Marc, Nico Rosseillier, Rigards and Selima Optique. The auction will conclude on June 25 at 11:59 p.m.

VM’s sister publication, 20/20 magazine conducted a recent video interview, posted here with The Vision Council’s Tarrance Lackran, director of partnerships and programming, to discuss ways to support colleagues in the black community, recruiting and mentoring the next generation of black eyecare professionals.

The personal and professional points of view of black eyecare professionals, including optometrists, opticians, associates and company executives are part of the mission of the two-year-old Black Eyecare Perspective, a group founded by practitioners Drs. Adam Ramsey and Darryl Glover, which aims to further cultivate relationships between African Americans and the eyecare industry via in-person conversations, the group’s blog, events and visibility via a strong social media presence.

Just last week, Black Eyecare Perspective pulled together a powerful video in which several black eyecare professionals shared their personal experiences and sought ways to make a difference. The video is posted here.

Drs. Darryl Glover (l) and Adam Ramsey, founders of Black Eyecare Perspective.

Dr. Ramsey told VMAIL, “There are about 180 in our group, people from the U.S., as well as the Caribbean, Canada, and the U.K. We are the collective voice and a safe space for people to get together to share their experience but to also engage with non-minorities and executives around the country to help them to understand our points of view. The moment is here.”

Added Dr. Glover, “Our goal is not simply webinars or Zoom. We’re looking to meet with the people in charge and help make change. To talk to them, to engage in dialogues. We're looking to take steps, by speaking to the people in charge.”  

He added, “We are definitely involved in the National Optometric Association (NOA) and we long have supported all they’re doing for optometry and the profession. But we feel there’s much work to be done to get to the 13 percent—the proportion of the U.S. population who are African American—to have more participation and presence, whether board or management executives, students in the eyecare professions, eyewear designers, whatever it may be.

Black Eyecare Perspective did launch its “13% Promise” pledge on Friday, Juneteenth. Vision Monday wrote about the new initiative in VMAIL here. Co-founders Dr. Ramsey and Dr. Glover explain, "We are here to sound the alarm to inequality found in eyecare. We first need to admit that there is an issue and then we can work on having a targeted approach to fixing it. U.S. Census data shows that 13.4 percent of the U.S. population identifies as African American.

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"This is a far cry from the representation we currently have in the eyecare community. Our ask is that all companies, schools, organizations and individuals take a self-evaluation at where they fall on these parameters. BEP wants to work with everyone to create a specified plan to help get everyone’s numbers up to 13 percent. For those that commit to the pledge we will help provide resources and accountability to reach our target goal."

“We are starting to have executives, HR professionals, many have reached out to us and it’s a blessing, we want to start to change things and build more awareness, quickly.” Added Dr. Ramsey, “We’re about pushing forward eyecare all together, how can we help more people understand the struggle that black eyecare professionals go through.”

New England College of Optometry’s 10th episode of InsideVision aired a special show titled “Optometry in Black and White” on Wednesday, June 17 on the InsideVision YouTube Channel. The live program was anchored from Boston, Massachusetts by New England College of Optometry president and CEO, Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO. The discussion with Black Eyecare Perspective’s Drs. Glover and Ramsey was titled and can now be seen on the show’s You Tube channel here.

Leaders of several optical companies and groups have also shared their philosophies, either in letters to their companies, social media posts and other ways.

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An Essilor spokesperson told VMAIL, “As the country reacted to the death of George Floyd and the horrific events in the black community, Rick Gadd, president of Essilor, North America reinforced Essilor of America’s mission, principles and values to encourage employees to engage in meaningful conversations with one another and remind the organization what is at the heart of their organization.”

In an employee communication, Gadd said, “At Essilor, our mission of improving lives by improving sight is foundational to creating equality in the world. We must stand together for anyone who has experienced racism, support each other through compassion, a genuine understanding of our unique experiences and respect for all humans. Respect. Trust. Diversity. Inclusion. These are not just words, but the principles and values that are at the core of how we operate, engage and behave. We will not tolerate discrimination of any type.”

Immediately following the statement, Rick Gadd and Lisa Esparza, EOA’s chief human resources officer, met with the leaders of their Business Resource Groups to create an open dialogue for employees on the Essilor culture and community. As a follow-up, the company’s senior leadership will host a series of roundtables to give employees a safe place to further the conversation and to explore more ways to invest in diversity, inclusion and equality at EOA, the spokesperson related.

“As a company, we are fiercely against racism of any kind. In fact, our brands have always stood for inclusion, celebrating individuals for what makes them unique,” Fabrizio Uguzzoni, president of Luxottica Wholesale N.A. told VMAIL. “Our accomplishments can be directly attributed to the broad range of perspectives and backgrounds we enjoy as part of one Luxottica family.”

At National Vision (Nasdaq: EYE), president and CEO, Reade Fahs stated, on June 4, “Over the last week, a national dialogue on the inequities of our society has once again been sparked by the instant mass distribution of a citizen video that enabled us to collectively bear witness to the violence and innocent deaths that have been an ugly part of our country’s history—since its inception. These are fundamental injustices against humanity.

“Tragedies, such as the innocent death of George Floyd and so many others before him, provide reason for us to look inward as individuals, as organizations and as a society. These inequities have gone on far too long. They are unacceptable, and Americans everywhere are speaking up to make that known. In recent days, I’ve had many conversations about the depth of the issues that are affecting our African American colleagues, friends, and communities—and are felt deeply by many others as well.

“Discussions like these, I feel, are helpful to all involved. Let us commit that this time things will be different. Let us commit that this time, the societal indignation does not dissipate but instead turns into real reform and positive significant change.”

Sue Downes, CEO and co-founder of MyEyeDr. communicated via LinkedIn and also in a message to all employees. This week, she told VMAIL, the company’s CEO Ambassadors group had their first meeting, working in the direction of what our employees want in contrast to a top-down approach. In her post, Downes said, “MyEyeDr. stands with those individuals and organizations that are outraged at the murder of George Floyd. The subsequent outpouring of social activism and raw emotion reinforces that people of color need to be seen and heard in our communities and that positive change cannot occur without opening our eyes and opening our minds to what true equality and respect must be. We are willing and committed to participating in the conversation and being a part of the solution.”

She added, “The Dalai Lama once said, ‘When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.’ Our first step is to listen to the voices within our company, our associates and doctors, so that our ongoing policies and actions reflect the view and input of those who have not had the loudest voices in the past. We will listen and we will grow as a team.”

In a statement issued June 10, VSP Global president and CEO Michael Guyette, said, “The senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans have, rightly ignited outrage across the U.S. and the world, further elevating an important national dialogue. On behalf of the VSP Global board, my leadership team and employees around the globe, I want to express our collective grief and frustration over these tragedies, which unfortunately join a centuries-long list of injustices committed against Black people in this country. We unequivocally affirm the principle that Black lives matter. Racism of any kind will not be tolerated at VSP Global.”

He added, “We are taking a long, hard look at the diversity and inclusivity across all our businesses and accelerating efforts to embed a revised strategy—with action plans and accountability—within the operations of the company. One designed to create a better environment and opportunities for Black employees to advance into leadership roles, one that enhances our ability to meet the diverse needs of our members and the communities we support and one that better leverages the value of all our business resource groups. One of our first steps is to hire a full-time diversity and inclusion officer to ensure we realize permanent and lasting change.”

Two long-time eyewear companies, both family-run, posted letters and shared their values and concerns. From Rodney, Michael and Bev Suliteanu and Mike Debono of WestGroupe, a letter was shared and posted to express their views. The full letter is shared here and states, in part, “Due to the diversity of the WestGroupe family as well as our customer base, as a company we have always strived to remain apolitical and neutral regarding world events.

“While we have our personal opinions and views on the events that shape our lives, and sometimes express those feeling on our personal social media platforms, we have always felt that it was important that we try our best to not impose our viewpoint on our employees and customers. While we still maintain this viewpoint, as company owners and business leaders, due to the gut wrenching events we have all witnessed, we feel it necessary to express our thoughts publicly…We have chosen to make our feelings public on our corporate social media platforms because we realize that our silence has hurt some of our WestGroupe family members and customers who, rightly so, expected our vocal support at this very difficult time….As a company, WestGroupe supports diversity and equality and strives for a world that does not recognize differences in color, gender, religion or sexuality and treats everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

At Zyloware, the eyewear company shared its statement on social platforms, the #WeAreZyloware blog, and via direct communications. The full text is posted here and says, in part, “Zyloware has and always will stand in solidarity with the Black community, colleagues, and supporters against racism and racial injustices. When we created our Mission Statement, we chose key words that firmly speak to the core values of Zyloware: "Diverse," "Individuals," "Family Values" and "Commitment." We celebrate our diversity and inclusion as a company, and realize they have always been our key strengths as a business.

“We are proud that our Zyloware family is diverse with over 57 percent of our employees, including executives, identifying as non-white. Nonetheless, we understand that having a diverse team is not enough. We can and will do better to support our team and partners, so we are getting to work by:

• Re-examining our current employee education programs to add training on diversity and unconscious bias.
• Making a commitment to being diligent in choosing partners who represent the diversity of the Zyloware family and are inclusive of our values as a company.
• Being active participants in listening and learning so we can better support and advocate for our team.”

Many additional ECPs and optical community members have been speaking up about #BlackLivesMatter in the past several weeks, as VM reported in our latest The Independent Eye newsletter. Watch for and VMAIL to continue to monitor developments and cover these events from around the optical retail and vision care space. We have established a Diversity and Inclusion section on our website to house our coverage of all of these developments.