Alums’ Business Aims to Help the Needy
Published: Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Updated: Thursday, May 17, 2012 01:05
Sunglasses are the quintessential summer accessory. Whether worn to protect eyes from the bright sun and harsh UV rays or to accent an outfit, everyone sports a pair of sunglasses during the summer. Few, however, think of sunglasses as a way to help those in need. Vincent Ko (MSB ’10) and Luke Lagera (MSB ’10) used sunglasses to launch their own venture into social entrepreneurship and created PANDA after graduating.
Ko and Lagera founded PANDA in early 2012 after the huge success of their project on Kickstarter, a website where new projects solicit investments to get themselves off the ground. Ko and Lagera found incredible success, raising $16,000 over their initial $3,000 goal. They sold out immediately on the website, and that’s when Ko and Lagera knew they were on to something.
“[Ko] was really the brainchild of the idea,” Lagera, who is based in New York City, said. “Walking through Georgetown, we saw some sunglasses at all of the various retail shops and found ourselves wondering why they were all the same. We wanted to change the look and social impact of sunglasses,” he said.
PANDA produces high-end sunglasses in many different shapes, colors and varieties. Each pair is made of environmentally friendly bamboo, which floats in water. Their company is based around the idea of giving back, much like TOMS shoes; every pair of sunglasses sold finances an eye examination through The Tribal Outreach Medical Assistance Foundation, which gives medical assistance to rural populations in South America.
Their inspiration, according to Lagera, came from the idea of “conscious capitalism,” meaning that they want the sales of their sunglasses to go towards something more than their personal wealth.
Beyond helping others, the sunglasses are also intentionally eco-friendly. “We wanted to develop a sustainable product,” Lagera said. “TOMA was a big part of our inspiration but not the only one.” They want to have minimal environmental impact in the construction of their product, achieved by both the material and the lack of mass-production: Each pair of sunglasses is handcrafted.
Lagera and Ko were inspired to start their company by their experiences as undergraduates at Georgetown. “Georgetown is probably one of the most interesting schools, in that men and women alike go to classes dressed up. People really have a fashion side to them,” Lagera said. “[I wanted to] take something like sunglasses that everyone wears and change it into something that really makes a difference.”
Ko and Lagera both greatly enjoy running the business as close friends who share the value system they associate with Georgetown.
“[Working with a friend] makes it a lot better,” Lagera said. “Here’s someone that … I can trust, and … it’s a guy I went out in Georgetown drinking with, and then the next day he had a final exam. I know his work ethic in and out. Both of us have the same ideas — we’re working toward the same goals at the end of the day.” Running a business in this manner has allowed them to work together to achieve their goal of making a difference in the world.
PANDA’s sunglasses have recently been picked up by Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, and Ko and Lagera are in talks with other big-name companies like Nordstrom. The result will be greater exposure and access to their product, which will increase the benefit to South American populations and the environment. The sunglasses will be a part of the New York City ENK Accessorie Circuit, a three-day fashion expo featuring hundreds of companies, including such highly established brands as Lucky, BCBG and Splendid. PANDA also recently accepted to the Ethical Fashion Fellowship, which aims to unite pioneering fashion innovators who also practice sustainability.
Lagera believes that this model of social entrepreneurship will help those in need, and also benefit society as a whole. “We all share the belief that both hard work and risk deserve a profit, and I think that any company should seek that, but the goal of companies shouldn’t be to maximize their profit … it should [also] be to give back to society,” he said.
Lagera said that he feels his company was directly inspired by his Georgetown education, and he hopes other Hoyas see this.
“We want to spread the word and make sure everyone knows that it’s a Georgetown thing,” he said.