Slidell siblings use sunglass profits to finance eye care

BUSINESS VISION

Photo provided by Jonathan Amaraneni -- From left, Jonathan and Jenny Amaraneni and their father, Dr. Kumar, are seen on a trip to visit sunglass-manufacturing factories in China.
Photo provided by Jonathan Amaraneni -- From left, Jonathan and Jenny Amaraneni and their father, Dr. Kumar, are seen on a trip to visit sunglass-manufacturing factories in China.

Since 2011, SOLO Eyewear has helped to restore vision for more than 2,400 people, one pair of sunglasses at a time.

And it was all because Jenny Amaraneni, a Slidell native, couldn’t let a college project go.

While completing a master’s degree in business administration at San Diego State University, Amaraneni was assigned the task of developing a business plan that was profitable and socially beneficial.

“I was reading a book about poverty and the author discussed the need for eye care in the world, and I personally have terrible vision,” Amaraneni said.

“I realized how blessed I am to own a pair of contacts or glasses, so that was the ‘Aha!’ moment.

“I needed to address this critical need in the world, and the concept for our company came from that.”

SOLO Eyeware was born.

Amaraneni developed a line of sunglasses made from recycled bamboo and using CR-39 lenses, which offer full UV protection.

Not only are these sunglasses eco-friendly, but every pair of SOLO sunglasses bought pays for a pair of prescription eyeglasses and part of a cataract surgery.

In less than two years, SOLO Eyewear has restored vision to more than 3,000 people in 19 countries, including the United States, through prescription eyeglasses and cataract surgeries.

“We had to do a lot of research to get a really strong understanding for the need of eye care in the world, and we realized that there are two main areas to address, helping people in need of prescription eyewear to see, and addressing cataracts, which is the leading cause of preventable blindness,” Amaraneni said.

Amaraneni grew up in Slidell, her father an emergency room doctor at Slidell Memorial Hospital and Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and her mother a registered nurse at University Hospital. Helping others was instilled in her early.

With an undergraduate concentration in entrepreneurship at LSU, there was never a doubt that Amaraneni would turn her idea into a reality.

Amaraneni partnered with three nonprofits. Through Restoring Vision, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, SOLO has donated reading glasses to 18 countries. On a visit to India in 2012, they met with their partner organizations, LV Prasad Eye Institute and Aravind, and were able to experience first-hand one of the 150 cataract surgeries that they were helping to fund.

“We were able to stand in the operating room and actually watch them perform the surgeries, it was an incredible experience,” Amaraneni said.

“People would come in completely blind from their cataracts and have their vision completely restored in as little as five minutes.”

Developing SOLO from an idea to an actual product that would fund prescription eyewear and cataract surgery was a journey in itself.

“I came into this not knowing anything about the manufacturing of sunglasses,” Amaraneni said. “Our first collection had tons of quality issues and design issues, so it took us about 10 months of product development to craft high-quality bamboo sunglasses.”

To get the first small shipment of sunglasses in, Amaraneni borrowed $1,100 from her brother, Jonathan Amaraneni, who is a postgraduate student at the University of New Orleans.

Jonathan has recently taken on a more active role in sales and bringing SOLO to Louisiana.

“Watching Jenny walk through the factory in China (where SOLO sunglasses are produced) and seeing this concept and business idea that she developed in the classroom come to life, just because she decided that was what she wanted to do — she put her heart and soul into it, and it’s hard to not want to be a part of it,” Jonathan Amaraneni said.

Once they had fine-tuned the SOLO product, production costs quadrupled.

The siblings turned to crowd funding to help finance the production of the second generation of SOLO’s. Using the website Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects, they raised $30,000 in a month.

“We always preach about the power of one, but so much of that is having one person stand up for something they believe in and rallying others behind the cause,” Jenny Amaraneni said. “Although I came up with the idea of SOLO, we would not be where we are if others didn’t join the movement.”

After two years, SOLO is in 30 retail stores, most of which are in Southern California; three are in Louisiana. The sunglasses are priced from $78 to $150.

“I dream about walking into a big office and being able to employ hundreds of people,” Amaraneni said, “because we believed in starting a company based on the foundation of helping others.”