James Chen is the North Asia regional honoree for the 2021 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making an impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
According to the World Health Organization, some 2.2 billion people around the globe have some form of vision impairment. Almost half of those — 1 billion — easily could be helped with an inexpensive 700-year-old invention: a pair of eyeglasses.
YPO member James Chen learned early the importance of glasses. At 16, he went to take his driving test — and failed. He did not break any rules, but he couldn’t pass the eye test. Glasses have been a part of his life ever since — and so has giving back, something he learned from his late father, philanthropist Robert Yet-Sen Chen, who founded The Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, which focuses on improving early childhood education.
For more than a decade, the younger Chen has made it his personal mission to get glasses to everyone who needs them and create a world with access to vision care for all.
“When I started, I had no idea how big this problem was, that this affected 2.2 billion people in the world. I knew nothing about the optical industry, how all this worked,” says Chen, who is based in Hong Kong and is Chairman of Wahum Group Holdings, a third generation, family-owned manufacturing business. “The only thing I could go on was literally, every morning, I put on my glasses and my world changed. It was blurry before I put on my glasses, and it was clear when I put on my glasses.”
In 2004, he co-founded Adlens and its nonprofit affiliate Adaptive Eyewear, to address the need for accessible and affordable eyeglasses. Then, in 2010, he co-founded nonprofit Vision for a Nation, which allowed Rwanda to become the first low-income country in history to deliver vision screening and glasses to all its citizens. The organization has won numerous awards and accolades for its groundbreaking work. Chen quickly realized that replicating this work one country at a time would take “1,000 years” to achieve his goal of global eyecare access. He started thinking bigger and on a more global scale. He wanted a way to get policymakers and government leaders involved in vision issues that could bring global awareness to the issue and dramatically speed up the process. In 2016, the Clearly campaign launched with an initiative designed to convince government leaders of the importance of access to vision correction and to encourage action on “the No. 1 unaddressed disability in the world.”
Dropping a rock into an ocean
While his work in Rwanda and his work with Adlens inspired the Clearly campaign, Chen says it has always been his “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.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, he says. One of the biggest challenges for such an ambitious campaign was figuring out how to reach those people in power and positions to actually make change happen. “It was quite daunting,” says Chen. “How do you get people’s attention?” At first, he and his colleagues thought they would focus on the internet and social media to draw attention to their cause. He says they thought, “Let’s put this out there and really try to kind of bang the drum on this.” It didn’t get as much attention as they hoped.
I hope that other philanthropists will be inspired to become moonshot philanthropists — to privatize failure and socialize success — and join me in solving some of the world’s greatest challenges. ”
— James Chen, Philanthropist share
“No matter how many resources, how much money we put into it, we realized very quickly that it was the equivalent of dropping a rock into the ocean: the ripples are overwhelmed by the noise of the waves,” Chen says. “To try to get people’s attention on this was a much greater challenge than we had anticipated even using these new technologies and techniques.”
Getting the attention of policymakers
It meant going back to the drawing board and brainstorming a better way to access the global political scene. The goal turned out to be the annual Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting scheduled for London in 2018. It was 2017, so Chen and his campaign staff had one year to get ready for the meeting and to figure out how to convince the 54 world leaders in attendance to commit to “quality eyecare for all.”
“It was an incredible effort to get there,” says Chen. Of the more than 170 issues the leaders had presented to them, only two were chosen, and Clearly was one of them. “It was the first time that a global forum of essential policymakers and government leaders outside of the eyecare sector recognized us and that this was something that really needed to be worked on,” he says.
The economic effects of poor vision
In 2019, Lancet Global Health published Clearly’s PROSPER research: the first randomized controlled trial results of the impact of vision on productivity. Clearly funded the study, which was based in Assam, India, and focused on 750 tea pickers, mostly women, with poor vision. The study was able to measure the difference in both the quantity and quality of tea picking. The result was more than a 21% average increase in productivity from the group that had their vision corrected versus the ones who had not. “This is huge. It is one day a week of extra productivity just from having their vision corrected,” explains Chen.
Clearly is sponsoring other research that shows the links between correcting poor vision and factory productivity and educational outcomes. The campaign is also focusing on driving safety, something people do not necessarily connect with vision issues but should be obvious, says Chen. If someone has poor vision and is driving, that is a contributing factor to road traffic accidents. “Road traffic accidents are already the largest killer of people under 30 in Africa today, larger than malaria or any disease,” says Chen.
By funding this type of research, Clearly can appeal to both the Ministries of Finance and Health and convince them of the economic and societal value of investing in universal eyecare, says Chen. Currently, more than 70 U.N. member states are actively working on a U.N. Resolution on Vision that is circulating in the General Assembly. “If it passes, this will be a groundbreaking moment for our campaign and a significant milestone in my personal journey in vision correction,” says Chen.
In January 2021, Clearly merged with The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) to combine the expertise of the two organizations. “By combining resources, we feel that we are able to turbocharge the success we’re seeing on the advocacy front,” says Chen. With the change, Chen’s new role is as an ambassador for the IAPB, and he will be doing less day-to-day work on the campaign.
Rather than rest on Clearly’s myriad achievements, Chen is hard at work at encouraging other philanthropists to engage in high-risk, high-impact projects or “moonshot philanthropy,” as he calls it. While businesses and governments are accountable to shareholders and taxpayers and therefore usually adverse to taking risks, high net worth philanthropists do not have those same constraints, says Chen. “We have the freedom to deploy risk capital and absorb the consequences of failure,” he says. “I hope that other philanthropists will be inspired to become moonshot philanthropists – to privatize failure and socialize success – and join me in solving some of the world’s greatest challenges.”