Warby Parker is eyeing a college in Boston as the best place to start an effort to draw more Black students into the field of optometry.
The New York-based eyewear retailer has pledged $440,000 to the New England College of Optometry to give two Black students free tuition for four years, starting in September 2021. The scholarship donation is one of the first tangible steps that Warby Parker is taking to meet a series of diversity and inclusion goals it established in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests.
Black people are dramatically underrepresented in the field of optometry: Roughly 3 percent of those in US optometry schools are Black students, and even fewer are practicing optometrists, compared to being roughly 13 percent of the general population.
NECO president Howard Purcell said his 600-student school in the Back Bay was the first college to sign on to a pledge to bring student and faculty numbers up to 13 percent. Called the “13% Promise,” the goal was established by a group of optometrists called Black Eyecare Perspective to make the industry more inclusive.
“The only way we’re going to achieve this is if we’re able to address what’s going on at the schools and colleges,” Purcell said. “People want to come to a place where they see people who look like them.”
Purcell concedes NECO has a long way to go, too: Its Black student population resembles the 3 percent average among the 23 optometry schools in the country. “That’s not acceptable to us,” Purcell said. “That’s why we’re making these efforts.”
Warby Parker co-CEOs Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal said the company this summer assembled a 10-point list of internal and external goals to improve racial equity. The external ones included increasing Black representation in the field of optometry and in the tech sector. The company’s “Racial Equity Strategy” suggested it would spend $500,000 on scholarships over the next five years. But Gilboa hinted more scholarships would be in the works.
“With everything we do, we like to start small with clear goals and learn and build off that,” Gilboa said. “Our expectation is that this is the first of many scholarships that we would fund for students, both at NECO and at other schools.”
Warby Parker already had a relationship with NECO. Warby Parker recruits new practitioners from the school, and they work together in Boston on the company’s charitable initiative, dubbed the Pupils Project, that provides eye exams and glasses for students in need.
Next up for the company: collaborating with historically Black colleges and universities, two other retailers, and optometrists from the Black Eyecare Perspective group to host a career fair on Tuesday.
“Our hope is that more and more businesses find a way to leverage their resources … to create a more just and equal society,” Blumenthal said. “The lack of Black representation is not unique to the field of optometry. We know it exists in all forms of health care and in almost all other industries. Businesses have a big role to play in making America more just and equal.”