While in the M.B.A. program at San Diego State University in the spring of 2010, Jenny Amaraneni had to read a book.
That book — “Out of Poverty” by Paul Polak — aims to spark a revolution against traditional poverty eradication programs, and replace them with a new approach.
Amaraneni admitted she never finished the book.
But she did read Polak’s references to his travels in Africa and his revelation that hardly anyone there who needed eye glasses owned a pair, because they could not afford them.
The same class that required reading Polak’s book also asked students to come up with business ideas based on a social cause.
“So after learning about the need in the book, we had to start thinking of what’s a sustainable way to help people in need of eye care,” Amaraneni said. “So we came up with this concept for the class,” and the idea of SOLO Eyewear was born.
The concept was to sell sunglasses and send a portion of the profits to charities that would either provide glasses or vision-saving eye surgery for people in need.
By January 2011, Amaraneni decided the project should be a real-life venture, and enlisted the help of her friend Craig Stern, a fellow SDSU graduate.
“It’s funny,” Stern said. “When Jenny first told me about it, I was doing mobile apps before that, and a lot of online techie stuff, so I didn’t identify with it being something for me at all.”
Stern didn’t think he could be central to the business, but that it was a “cool” idea.
Two weeks later, he changed his mind.
They contacted manufacturers, trying to figure out how to create inexpensive sunglasses that incorporated wood into the design.
Amaraneni’s brother loaned them $1,500 to place a small order.
The young entrepreneurs initially sold the glasses for about $20, just to get the product out in public.
Feedback quickly came. A local magazine, Fashion 5.0, wanted to prominently feature SOLO Eyewear.
But that very same day, they received several phone calls complaining of the bamboo temples breaking away from the glasses at the hinges, and pulled the product.
After re-working the design with experts, apologizing to customers, and speaking to a panel of manufacturers at a conference, SOLO Eyewear re-emerged three months later.
The company now works with nonprofits including L.V. Prasad Eye Institute, Aravind Eye Care Systems and California-based Restoring Vision.
At least 20 percent of SOLO Eyewear’s revenue has gone to fund eye care services, which Stern said is a larger share than most companies would dedicate.
To date, they have provided around 1,000 eyeglasses and more than 100 cataract surgeries for people in need throughout 12 countries.
Ready to launch its latest product line in May, SOLO Eyewear is looking to expand its reach beyond the Internet and a few select outlets — like the SDSU bookstore — and is in talks with several retailers to carry the glasses.