Doing Well by Doing Good: An Interview with James Chen, Founder of Clearly

(Photo credit: Lee-or Atsmon Fruin)

About three years ago, my family and I went on an epic multi-country travel adventure. Prior to our trip, I reached out to James through the Synergos network. When we stopped in Hong Kong, James took care of us during our stay as if we were part of his family. He is a very special person who, even if he has inherited his wealth, is finding the right balance between for profit and nonprofit. His last venture is a great example of this right balance: building a profitable business that will impact millions of lives positively!

From Adlens (which you founded in 2005 to address the unmet need for corrective vision in the developing world) to Vision for a Nation Foundation to the Clearly campaign, the universal access to corrective vision/eye care is a cause that is very important to you. Why did you choose to focus on this cause?

Despite advances in technology, 2.5 billion people with poor vision still don't have access to necessary eye care. And yet, in the developing world, something as simple as a pair of glasses can be the gateway to a greater quality of life. That's why I decided to dedicate my life to making this access possible.

Over 700 years after spectacles were invented, the striking inequality of access to eye care remains a crucial impediment to the growth of developing economies. According to Access Economics, current rates of poor vision are costing the global economy an estimated $3 trillion a year - more than the total gross domestic product of Africa.

Clearly is the culmination of 12 years of my journey to improve access to vision correction, which started with discovering the potential of adjustable glasses and founding Adlens and then through the work of Vision for a Nation in Rwanda. The Clearly campaign brings together innovators, scientists, technology firms and big business, with investors, governments and NGOs to take on this challenge and rethink the approach to world vision.

Tell me more about Adlens' "social soul". I love this term. How is Adlens working in partnership with global organizations to bring eyecare to underserved populations? Do Adlens' employees have opportunities to work with the partnership organizations, as volunteers?

Adlens has grown into a global enterprise leading the development and sale of adjustable focus eyewear. To date we have sold over 1.5 million pairs of adjustable glasses globally.

Our "social soul" is fundamental to the Adlens story, as we seek to provide universal access to vision correction through social partnerships, and social innovation initiatives.

We are constantly evolving our social offering to meet the needs of the sector. We now do this through our partnerships, including Vision for a Nation and Fight for Sight. As part of our social enterprise, we donate Adlens adjustables to Vision for a Nation to distribute in Rwanda, where they are sold for $1.50 per pair to encourage a sense of ownership.

My work with Adlens inspired the Clearly campaign, but at the heart of this project is my fundamental belief that, with the combined force and potential of the best minds in the world, we can discover new solutions and technologies and maximize the impact of emerging innovations, which are collectively capable of affecting change on a global scale.

Those working at Adlens get many opportunities to participate in this social purpose - whether it be interventions like "Healthcare for Humanity" in Honduras, contributing to vision research through charities like CHANNELS at the University of New England's Department of Nursing or by influencing systems-level thinking in programmes like those hosted by the DO School and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford.

Vision for a Nation Foundation, a UK charity you founded in 2011, has been working with the government of Rwanda to build locally accessible eye care services across the country. When the idea to build a program was first introduced to the government, how was it received? To create systemic change, why is it important for governments to work side by side with the public and private sector?

Vision for a Nation in Rwanda showed how an ambitious project can be delivered with the right ideas and progressive and practical partners behind it - from healthcare professionals to NGOs and government to private donors.

The determination of Rwanda's Ministry of Health to develop a holistic national eye care plan has been a key success factor. Dr Agnes Binagwaho, the Minister of Health, has championed the program from the outset. Indeed, the initiative is owned by the Government of Rwanda and supported by Vision for a Nation.

The eye care service that we have helped establish is now a permanent and fully integrated part of Rwanda's health system. By December 2017, around 1.6 million Rwandans will have received a screening, with 350,000 receiving glasses and 325,000 referred for specialist treatment.

Vision for a Nation's Rwanda program represents a model for how to successfully deliver eye care services for entire populations in low-and-middle-income countries. We are now in exploratory discussions with national governments in Asia (Bhutan) and Africa (Botswana) about potentially supporting their national eye health plans. The World Health Organization is also adapting the Rwanda training course for Africa.

In an interview with Straits Times, you acknowledged that it was a challenge to balance the profit-making and charity elements of helping people see better. How so?

Absolutely. Social impact investment requires time and long term commitment.

Charities and NGOs are already doing good work in the area of vision correction - but the problem is growing faster than the solutions. The Clearly campaign is about taking a new approach - we are not focused on fundraising, but on raising awareness and connecting the people with big ideas with the people who can make the ideas happen.

Social enterprises are not viable at scale to solve the underlying social problem, however commercial enterprises with social purpose could be the key to a better future for all.

With companies in the UK and Hong Kong, you split your time between Asia and Europe. Can you tell me more about the differences in the culture of giving in the UK vs. Hong Kong? What's working, and what isn't?

Family philanthropy is still a relatively new phenomenon in China. In the US for example, long-established private and family philanthropists such as Carnegie and Rockefeller have been joined by a new generation of emerging leaders like Bill Gates.

Wealthy Chinese families tend to be very charitable but not necessarily philanthropic -and are reticent to publicize their commitments. The concept of engaging with social change has not really been part of Chinese culture in the past. However it is changing and I think this is an exciting time to be a Chinese philanthropist - we are at the convergence of burgeoning wealth and unencumbered family opportunity.

How can the readers get involved with the Clearly Campaign?

Through the Clearly Vision Prize - an ideas competition for entrepreneurs - we are searching for daring ideas, pioneering technologies and untapped expertise that will help the world to see.

People can help either by submitting an idea or sharing the campaign with their wider network You don't need to be working in the eye care industry to enter, but your idea should aim to drive progress in detection, training, supply chain or data insights.

The very best ideas - those that have the potential to transform the way we deliver vision to all - will compete for $250,000 in prizes and one-on-one mentoring opportunities to make them a reality. Those with business experience can also help as mentors or judges.

The closing date for the competition is 18 July. After this, there will be a role for ideas emanating from the public in the campaign. We will announce additional opportunities for engagement and involvement throughout the year.

Visit for more information.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned so far as an entrepreneur?

Actually, I don't consider myself to be an entrepreneur. I consider myself to be an investor and donor who strives for deep knowledge and understanding around the issue of vision correction. I think it is important to ask the question: why can't everyone have access to vision correction?

I've had a twelve year learning curve focused on this issue. I believe it has allowed me to become a more enlightened investor and donor. It has given me the confidence to launch and fund the ambitious Clearly campaign based on my assessment of what is the highest impact intervention on this issue at this time.

My greatest learning is that to be truly impactful as a philanthropist, one needs to have the patience to spend the time and effort to become a domain expert on the issue of interest.

Finally, do you think by doing good, you're more successful?

Definitely. For me, the most important factors are sustainability and impact - making sure that I am investing money in an enterprise that will be sustainable and hopefully very profitable while having a symmetric impact if successful.

For me, it's about investing in social transformation and finding those ventures that are addressing real life problems which personally resonate with me (i.e. early childhood literacy or vision correction) and changing people's lives for the better.