BELLA Writer Brana sits down with Spinoza founder Silja

 

I was lucky enough to sit down with Silja Kim, founder of growing female-led business, Spinoza Eyewear. With an interest in art and fashion, Silja combines work ethic with vision.

What makes Spinoza unique, however, is their dedication to giving back to underserved communities by donating 10% of their profits to help put an end to blindness.

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Silja divulged the following and more:

1. What does SPINOZA mean? Why did you choose this name for your business?

We are named after Baruch Spinoza who was a Dutch philosopher from the seventeenth century. He laid the groundwork for the “Enlightenment,” but rejected prestigious faculty positions and lived a simple life as a lens grinder.

His lifestyle reflects our philosophy of humble but high quality eyewear.

2. Tell me about your personal background. What made you decide to get into Eyewear?

I was what you would call a big nerd growing up – I never took my thick heavy glasses off, but it always bothered me that I could not find a frame that would not slip off my nose or leave marks on my face. I always struggled to find stylish yet comfortable eyewear, but had no idea that I would eventually turn that quest to find better frames into my career.

I was inspired by a few fashion entrepreneurs I met along the way and hungry to get my own hands dirty in launching a brand and investing in it.

Three years ago, when I finally found a manufacturing partner to make SPINOZA’s prototype frames that were ultra light-weight but durable, everything fell into place – my personal passions and professional background were a perfect fit for the eyewear business. I knew I needed to build awareness and bring these unique frames to the right market.

3. How did you secure funding and get your business off the ground?

We sought investment from a group of amazing optometrists and ophthalmologists – they were fascinated not only by our design and product quality, but also by our “Lens for Lens” project. Through this project, we aim to be a socially responsible company that donates a portion of our proceeds to providing cataract surgeries, preventing avoidable blindness in underserved communities around the world.

Since they joined the Team SPINOZA early this year, we started distributing through eye doctors’ offices on top of fashion retailers, country clubs, and our own e-commerce shop – fifty offices bought our frames within three months, and we expect to have more than two hundred offices by the end of this year. Eye doctors are in the unique position of helping customers and patients who are visiting their practices understand the value of these feather-light, flexible, durable, stylish and yet affordable frames, as well as our social mission. We also regularly use their feedback to improve our products.

4. Did you perceive any direct challenges as a female entrepreneur?

I have not faced what I would consider significant professional challenges being a female entrepreneur. Sometimes, I receive questions that I do not believe would have been asked of male entrepreneurs (for example, questions that are too personal).
Fortunately, I am living in an interesting time in one of the most interesting cities, when and where any female entrepreneur can find an amazing group – or troop – of other female entrepreneurs who help to pave the way to receive equal recognition as a male entrepreneur.

5. Spinoza has a particular membership model, what have been the benefits and challenges of this model so far?

It is better described as a loyalty program – once a customer buys a pair of SPINOZA glasses and shares his or her basic information with us, he or she gets invitations to our exclusive events and also receives a discount on their next purchase online.

We observed that about seventy percent of our customers already come back to us within a year and ask about new models, purely because of the product quality and style. We appreciate their loyalty and want to make them lifelong customers. While this program does have some upfront costs and reduces our margins, we can see its long run profitability.

6. 10% of your proceeds go to fighting blindness. Why is this an important mission?

I am a believer that a portion of our earnings should be reinvested in the community, as seeds for the future. In agriculture, you always have to save some of your seeds to sow the next year. I have been seeking the right place to sow our “seeds” since starting SPINOZA.
From research, I learned that over a hundred million people are visually impaired due to cataracts, and ninety percent of them live in underserved communities – meaning their blindness directly impacts their generational poverty. Thanks to many non-profit organizations, anyone can support one cataract surgery by donating fifty dollars. I felt a strong connection between our business and this profound opportunity to prevent the loss of eyesight.

As soon as we became profitable last year, we started making donations to support cataract surgeries through Christian Eye Ministry and Orbis International, an organization that runs a “Flying Eye Hospital” around the globe with their own airplane. Finally, we prioritize partnering with investors and buyers who are willing to commit to providing pro bono, comprehensive eye surgeries or eye exams.

7. How do you keep up with current trends as a fashion business?

As a designer brand, we believe that establishing our own distinctive model is as important as following the fashion trends.
While my team and I conduct thorough research into the current trends in the eyewear market as well as the general fashion industry, I also keep detailed notes about suggestions from eyecare practitioners and customers as well as those about my inspirations from travel. Fortunately, most of my trips are to beautiful sunny places where optical frames and sunglasses are heavily consumed, and a lot of creative ideas come to me while flying around them!

The goal is to balance being trendy with being unique and comfortable.

8. What are the personal challenges you have face as you grow your business? How do you maintain balance in your life?

Time management is a big one. Finding enough time to spend with my family and close people, while having a professional life full of travel and meetings, is important yet challenging. Every year I get better at finding balance through being more efficient at work. I put all my professional and personal events in iCal with two alarms, so that I can plan ahead and be punctual. Following up with or appreciating anyone I met or emailed with is my morning routine. I like to make important decisions before noon, too. Prior to heading out for an afternoon of meetings, I return to my apartment for a power nap, to refresh myself. I travel extraordinarily light to be sharp at all times.

Another challenge is to keep my mental and physical health strong. I try to stay disciplined around basic things in my daily life: going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday, being strict about getting eight hours of sleep, doing squats, drinking fresh water, and starting my morning with a self-developed smoothie recipe (if you are curious, it is a mixture of kale, broccoli, celery, chives, blueberry, beets, banana, goat milk and coconut oil) and vitamin pills. Then after work, I work out, cook, FaceTime, read and keep a journal. I like to serve healthy dinner for close friends at least once a week, then also feel that it is crucial to have a weekly date night. Lastly, visiting my doctor, hairdresser, skin therapist, and masseuse regularly are extremely helpful in enriching my life.

9. How do you take your coffee?

Decaffeinated with 2 tablespoons of unsalted Kerrygold butter.

Founder Silja Kim; photo by Phoebe Cheong

For more information about Silja and her brand, please visit http://iwearspinoza.com or connect via social media @iWearSpinoza

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