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Founder Interview: DIFF Charitable Eyewear

February 1, 2018

In three short years, DIFF Charitable Eyewear has gone from start-up to Instagram tour de force, all based on the Millennial trifecta of cool design, social media savvy, and a commitment to giving back.

Along the way, the company’s co-founders, Chad Dime, Zach Gordan, and Chad Jernigan – all Millennials themselves – have produced something else, too: a (successful) social entrepreneur’s laboratory of sorts. We sat down with Chad Dime to discover how exactly he and his business partners have managed to maintain an experimental approach to its double bottom line while growing it.

(Diff Charitable Eyewear)

Dime, Gordan, and Jernigan started DIFF with a “buy one, give one” model, where one pair of reading glasses or an eye exam is donated for every pair of sunglasses sold. The founders had been impressed with other companies who had employed similar models.

TOMS was getting positive attention for doing something good with their brand and giving back. We knew it could be a successful part of our business model,” Dime says.

And it has been. As of January 2018, DIFF has donated more than 400,000 pairs of reading glasses or eye exams to people who can’t afford to purchase them. That giving is driven by sales, and bolstered by an aggressive social media and digital marketing strategy (including a partnership with Instagram influencer Khloe Kardashian).

“Zach came up with our influencer program, contacting people with big followings to ask if they would be willing to support a stylish sunglass company that gives back. That’s really what got our name out there,” says Dime.

But the buy-one-give-one model is not without its critics and Dime has researched the public concerns surrounding it.

“We want to make sure we don’t cross the line and do more harm than good,” Dime tells us. “As we’ve grown, we’ve taken a more hands-on approach, keeping a close eye on who’s receiving our donations through our partnerships.”

Dime tells us that assessing on-the-ground impact is important to the DIFF team. They want to know where their dollars are going and be transparent about that with their customers. As part of this, Dime spearheaded a review of the company’s donation distribution partners – which include Eyes on Africa, Restoring Vision, and Svosh – to ensure they are “dedicated, moral, unbiased, and sustainable.”

“The goal is to make sure we’re listening to what people are saying and expanding as a credible, trusted brand,” Dime says.

The company has also added to its charitable strategy, now developing programs that focus on community education and empowerment, with an emphasis on making an even deeper connection with the people they are helping.

“We want to empower people to help themselves. If the resource we are providing helps them go back to work, that’s a positive thing,” says Dime.

Enter: the Sabo Project, which trains and employs artisans in Arua, Uganda to create one-of-a-kind “pouches” (colorful, soft eyewear cases), and donates 100% of sale proceeds to support the Little Angels Primary and Nursery School there.

The Sabo Project (Diff Charitable Eyewear)

In true Millennial fashion, the Sabo Project began with a direct message via – you guessed it – Instagram. Dime reached out to a Uganda-based Peace Corps volunteer, Kelsey Sabo, to determine whether she’d be willing to receive eyeglass donations for distribution in the community there.

Sabo’s response was not quite an eager ‘yes’:

“Kelsey wrote: ‘I appreciate you reaching out, but unfortunately I cannot take this donation from you. I believe that giving things away for free is going to be detrimental to my mission here. If you’re ever looking to build a program through which we could work together in another way, though, that would be great.’” 

Dime was intrigued. He asked more questions, and learned that Sabo wanted to empower individuals in the Arua community to learn and retain skills in a self-sustaining manner, in addition to making a positive impact on the school there.

From there, the Sabo Project was born, allowing Dime and his co-founders to road-test new ways to expand DIFF’s mission.

“We wanted to create something that was foolproof in making a positive impact. We settled on employing people at fair, living wages, teaching them a skill they can take with them. We now employ 16 tailors in Uganda to make eyeglass pouches. The proceeds from pouch sales go back to help build the local school up from what it was,” Dime tells us.

The Sabo Project (Diff Charitable Eyewear)

“When we started, that school had no locking doors, no locking windows, no electricity, no fence around the playground, [no] desks… Through this program we’ve provided all that, and we’re continuing to build: libraries and a computer lab are next.”

In July, Dime and his partners took a trip to Uganda to see first-hand the impact The Sabo Project is having on the community.

“It was probably the most incredible experience I’ve ever had,” Dime tells us. “Our tailors are putting their kids through school with these wages. More than 300 students attend that school, and our work there is going to allow it to take on even more students.”

Chad says his ultimate goal is to tell the DIFF story well enough that it not only grows the market for their sunglasses, but also encourages an environment in which more and more companies can do well by doing good.

…Because the days of just purely profiting off people? That should be over.”