Down to Business: Pala Eyewear

Jenessa Williams

We spoke with John Pritchard, founder of Pala Eyewear, a philanthropic sunglasses brand about the secrets to his business success.

RD: How did Pala Eyewear get started and how would you best summarise what you offer?

John: Pala started, perhaps unusually, by identifying a cause and the starting point was eyecare in Africa—or rather, the lack of it. A pair of spectacles is one of the most cost-effective poverty alleviating tools you can provide a person. So, we kept it simple and created an eyewear brand that made an impact—from each pair of sunglasses sold we fund eye care projects in Africa, via our charity partner Vision Aid.

As a brand driven by purpose, our mission is to produce high quality, long-lasting eyewear whilst making a commitment to minimise our impact on the planet and maximise positive social impact on people. We are certified as a B Corporation, which means we meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance both profit and purpose.

 

Pala Eyewear
Founder John Pritchard

 

RD: What career trajectory led you to open your own business? Have you undergone any formal training/ previous roles that have helped with what you do for work now?

John: I worked at Microsoft for almost 10 years before making the jump to start my own business. As a company, Microsoft encouraged independent thinking and with that a sense of entrepreneurial spirit. During my time there I received excellent sales and marketing training, so I certainly had a good foundation of skills ready for when I made the move to start Pala. 

However, the reality of starting a sunglasses business was that I was entering an industry (fashion) that I had no previous experience in, I just knew I wanted to make a difference and try to do it sustainably. But my knowledge of sunglasses didn’t extend beyond the pair of old frames I kept in my kitchen drawer. So, from that point of view, it really was a case of starting from the beginning.

 

RD: How does your work compliment your personality? 

John: There is a definite synergy here. I’m really passionate about the outdoors—the natural world, adventure, sustainability—and sunglasses are made for discovery outside. It gives me great enjoyment when the team get together to apply creative thinking around how we can promote the value of our eyewear, alongside the values of the great outdoors.

I also like the fact my work is so varied and fast-moving—you have to make a lot of decisions and wear multiple hats that can take you in many directions. No two days are ever the same and it’s safe to say it keeps me on my toes, but I love the challenge.

 

Pala in Africa
John with patients and VAO at their eye centre in Luwingu, Zambia

 

RD: Why is the specific focus on the African continent so important to you? How does this wider purpose impact the job satisfaction that you feel with the brand? 

John: A main pillar of the Pala brand is supporting eye-care programmes in Africa to enable people, who may have not otherwise had, access to visual aids such as their own prescription glasses.

In my early twenties, I was fortunate enough to travel to numerous countries across Africa. The people I met and the beauty of the landscape never left me. Years later I read an article about lack of access to eyecare and learnt that there are 1.2 billion people in the world with poor vision, simply because they are unable to receive basic surgery or access glasses. And Africa has 73 per cent more visually impaired people than any other region in the world.

Yet a pair of reading glasses is recognised as the number one tool to fight poverty—it empowers the wearer by enabling them to read, learn and work. I knew that something more could be done. So, Pala was founded as a purpose-driven brand, designed to put people and the planet before profit. I wanted to join the dots to help others to see.

 

"Africa has 73 per cent more visually impaired people than any other region in the world"

 

RD: What does a typical workday look like for you? How has the business adapted for lockdown?

John: For me, structure works well—a good routine that supports productivity, allows room for creativity but that keep us on track and organised. Generally, my working day starts around 8 am

and finishes early evening but during the day I take an exercise break to go for a sea swim, cycle or paddle-boarding session. Fresh air and time to reflect are sometimes just what you need to get back to it with a clear head.

I’m lucky in that the lockdown hasn’t had a huge impact on the structure of my workdays, but home-schooling my 12-year-old daughter certainly adds in a new element I hadn’t quite factored in. Like many people, finding the work/life balance during lockdown has been tricky and coming up with ways to keep learning fun without an iPad has been a challenge…safe to say we’ve played a lot of Guess Who!

 

pupil
Pupil referencing a Snellen eye test chart for those unable to read letters - instead they point in the direction of the prongs

 

RD: What is your favourite and least favourite part of the job? 

John: The trips to Africa are certainly right up there. Seeing the impact of what our work is enabling for people first-hand is pretty incredible. This is the driving force of what Pala is all about and it’s important for me that we regularly visit to bring home the stories of impact and change to our customers.

We’ve got a brilliant team, one I’m really proud to be growing. We’re also fortunate to have great relationships with our partners and suppliers from all over the world—we’re very thankful for the opportunity to work with such a mix of characters and wouldn’t be where we are today without their support.

My least favourite parts are all admin related! Anything creative and fun steals my attention, but all the nitty-gritty (and completely essential!) admin, accounts or organisational tasks seem somehow get overshadowed at the bottom of the to-do list!

 

"Businesses that are trying to do good have to work twice as hard to compete"

 

RD: What do you like to do to switch off?

John: Get outdoors. Never have I returned from a swim, paddleboard, run or hike without feeling mentally refreshed. Photography is also a passion; I love capturing a moment in time. You may see a few of my pictures creeping into our Pala Instagram from time to time! I’ve started indulging a number of podcasts too.

It’s a really exciting time for sustainability and ethical business practice coming into mainstream conversation—great to see so many interesting subjects being talked about.

 

pala eyewear

 

RD: What has been the most valuable business lesson you’ve learnt so far? And what has been your most tangible achievement? 

John: Patience is a key one. I still have to remind myself of that sometimes! In truth launching a new business takes time, Rome wasn’t built in a day as they say…

We’ve found tremendous support in the network we’ve built around Pala. Both in terms of networking as a way to connect with likeminded people and brands, but also as a tool for skill sharing and talent recruitment.

I think, as a sustainable brand you have to be producing the very best designs and quality regardless of your story. If anything, businesses that are trying to do good have to work twice as hard to compete.

There have been some great achievements so far but being certified a B Corp earlier this year was a real milestone for us, we definitely raised a glass or two (albeit remotely) for that one!

 

RD: In five year’s time, where would you like to see the business?

John: Our aim is for Pala to be a truly established international eyewear brand. Most importantly, success will be tied to our impact in Africa, whether that is building vision centres, dispensaries of supporting outreach projects in remote areas. 

The environment and driving the change in sustainable business practises is also key for us. We already have a take-back scheme, here in the UK, which invites customers to donate their old frames (of any brand) and we ensure they’re recycled and we want to see this grow. Certainly, within the next 5 years we I would expect us to have taken more frames out of the system (to be responsibly recycled into to new products) than we have put in.

We’re making the move to small batch production with our new collection of bio-acetate frames (plant-based, durable but 100% biodegradable), which launches in April. It’s a bold step for us, but we wanted to show that businesses can operate based on demand and reduce potential waste from over-stock. 

In five years’ time I’d like to think that we’ll all have come a long way from disposable fast fashion and be making better, more informed, conscious purchases that help not hinder the planet.

 

RD: If you weren’t in this line of work, what other career would you love to have?

John: If you had asked me aged six, I dreamt of being an astronaut and to be fair that’s still on the table (in my imagination at least).

In my adult life it would most definitely be a travel photographer. To have the chance to travel this beautiful planet and capture nature in all its glory, as well as people and culture, would simply be amazing. However, it would need have a focus (pardon the pun) and for me it would be reminding people of everything we could potentially lose from this planet if we don’t address the big picture of the climate emergency. 

 

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