Ashanthi Mathai: Cross-Sector Effort Helps People See Better

Mathai established a powerful cross-sector collaboration with the Sri Lankan government, regional and local clinics, businesses, and philanthropists to issue eyeglasses to 10,600 people.

December 13, 2012

| by Marguerite Rigoglioso

Vision care is something that is practically taken for granted in the United States, but that’s not the case throughout much of the world. Some 300 million around the globe suffer from correctable vision loss, leading, as Ashanthi Mathai, MBA ‘04, says, “to people accepting their vision impairment and adjusting their lives around it.” The result? A lower quality of life, restricted job options, and even further economic distress.

In Mathai’s own native Sri Lanka, the problem is exacerbated by poverty. A full sixty percent of the population lives on less than $1.50 a day, making a $35 pair of glasses—the minimum retail price—an impossible luxury. And out of the 20 million people in her country, three million of them have an unmet need for eyeglasses, while 850,000 urgently require various kinds of vision aids.

So in 2009, when one of the Lion’s Clubs in her local city of Colombo asked her to help with their Sight First program to collect used eyeglasses from the United States and distribute them throughout Sri Lanka, Mathai readily agreed to assist. But, having needed glasses since she was eight, she knew that, given the vagaries of people’s conditions and needs, vision aids are really a custom-made affair. “It’s not the best practice to recycle,” says the Stanford MBA, who also holds a master’s in chemical engineering from Stanford, and a BSE in chemical engineering and creative writing from Princeton. 

After poking around the internet and finding sources for cost-effective new eyeglasses, she decided to partner with the Lion’s Club in a different way –– by setting up a separate organization called So Others May See (SOMS). Given her own status as a U.S. citizen, Mathai was able to establish SOMS as a tax-exempt charity whose main office is in Colombo. 

Since May 2011, Mathai has established a powerful cross-sector collaboration with the Sri Lankan government, regional and local clinics, grass-roots healthcare providers, businesses, and philanthropists to issue eyeglasses to 10,600 people who were not able to afford them. SOMS has also orchestrated eye exams for 210,000 school children around the country, and is following up with them on other eye care needs.


A Bifocal Approach

First, Mathai works with local wholesalers and retail distributors to source and purchase eyeglasses from manufacturers in China, India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. “We’ve been able to find companies that can fill prescriptions economically with quite beautiful, modern frames that come in a variety of forms and colors,” she says.

Having addressed the cost issue, she has worked to overcome the second major barrier many in her country face: lack of access to eye care. “Sri Lanka has only 48 national eye care units and 60 ophthalmologists,” she explains. “That’s not enough for 20 million people living across 25 districts.” Moreover, many people live in remote villages and cannot make the several-hour trip to cities that do offer eye care.

Mathai, who spent most of her career as a management consultant in the healthcare industry in the United States before bringing her consultancy back to Sri Lanka in 2009, has worked around the problem by garnering cross-sector support from the government and NGOs. The Ministry of Health has connected her with the regional district directors of health, who, in turn have given SOMS access to local health clinics. “Our approach has been to work with the existing infrastructure and to complement it,” she says.

Specifically, this means that SOMS has instituted a grassroots system enlisting the support of public health inspectors and midwives. These individuals, who regularly travel to local villages to do basic health screenings as a part of their work, have agreed to add vision tests to their list so as to identify people in need of eye care. From there, SOMS arranges for ophthalmologists from Colombo to be available at local clinics on specific days to do eye exams and generate prescriptions for those who need glasses. SOMS sends the orders to its suppliers, and in two weeks the glasses arrive back at the clinics for pick up. Reading glasses, which require less customization, can be dispensed on the spot.

None of this costs a single rupee to local Sri Lankans living in poverty. Mathai has secured needed funds from philanthropic individuals and local businesses eager to be involved in corporate social responsibility. The enterprise thus creates a win-win-win among government, corporations, the health care establishment, and people in need.

She has also partnered with the Ministry of Health to screen thousands of children in three districts in the north where the social infrastructure has been compromised and neglected due to the presence of armed conflict. SOMS is similarly working with a southern district, as well.

And the work goes on beyond Sri Lanka. In the United States, where nearly 50 million people are uninsured and some 35 million live below the poverty line, SOMS has an online application for those who cannot afford corrective glasses. They also provide information on where people may receive free or low-cost eye exams. A colleague has also asked Mathai to investigate bringing SOMS to Nigeria.

Seeing into the Future

Mathai, who in her new line of work frequently draws on her studies in public management, global management, and product creation and innovative manufacturing at Stanford GSB, is in the process of turning her nonprofit into a self-financed social enterprise in 2013. Continuing the spirit of cross-sector innovation, her initial plan is to partner with large manufacturers that produce clothing for the likes of companies such as Victoria’s Secret and Nike, and who employ tens of thousands of factory workers as well as with other companies with large numbers of low-income employees

“The idea is to help these companies provide eye exams and glasses to their employees, for which the companies would pay us twice the actual cost of the glasses which is still a third of the minimum retail price,” she explains. “With that profit, we could continue to provide free eye care and corrective lenses to the truly destitute.”

Already one blue-chip company in Sri Lanka has approached SOMS asking for such an arrangement. “We’re optimistic about working with other such firms,” says Mathai, who also aims to have SOMS partner with suppliers and health clinics to provide cataract surgery, lenses, and care.

Meanwhile, she is currently trying to raise the $100,000 that will be needed to set up the organization’s infrastructure for the next three years.

“It costs SOMS $6 to provide an eye exam and a custom-made pair of glasses, which is less than the price of a movie ticket in the US,” Mathai adds. “We marvel at how such a small amount of money can make a huge difference in people’s lives. We get dozens of letters from people thanking us because they’ve been given their full sight back, and, for example now are able to read after not being able to do so for a number of years.”

Mathai’s work demonstrates how creative collaborations between business, government, and nonprofit can lead to improvements in public welfare without huge infusions of capital.

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