Seeing is Believing

Seeing is Believing

The young men behind SWAP Socks are putting one foot in front of the other to cure blindness.

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This story was originally published in the December 2014 issue. 

No, their socks don’t match. Yes, they’d like to tell you about it.

On any given day, you’ll find 24-year-olds Roger Nahum, Match du Toit and Cole Page with a left and a right foot that are dissimilar, sure, but coordinated enough to make you do a double-take. “Distinctly mismatched” is the phrase Match prefers. “The first thing people usually say is, ‘Oh, cool socks. Very interesting,'” he says. “And then their next question is ‘Why?’ It’s great to have an answer for that.”

The answer is that not everyone has the ability to see a pair of socks — preventable blindness is a very real global issue. What’s more, it’s potentially curable, which is where the socks come in. Roger, Match and Cole design and sell SWAP Socks — which come as a pack of four coordinating but different socks — and donate half of their profits to eradicate preventable blindness. “It’s a visual cue to get people talking about blindness,” Roger says. “It’s conscious consumerism.”

HATCHING THE IDEA

It all began when Roger, a 2009 Chapel Hill High grad, decided to move out to San Francisco, where a surprisingly large group of twentysomething Chapel Hill natives have migrated. He took a job with Teysha, a company that works with Central American indigenous artisans to sell their handmade boots. Roger was hooked on the world of socially conscious consumerism. At a Teysha event, he had a conversation with somebody about visual impairment and what a problem it is — it was a passing conversation that he couldn’t shake, and began to research the topic. “Once I found out that there are 285 million cases of blindness and visual impairment worldwide and a staggering 80% of those are preventable or curable with access to basic eye care, I started to get involved with … Prevent Blindness Northern California,” Roger says. He left Teysha to work for the nonprofit full-time. While there, he had an idea, a way to spread awareness about an approachable problem — a common product with a twist. Socks.

Meanwhile, Roger’s high school friend, Match, was pursuing a graduate degree in chemistry at the University of California — Berkeley, and Roger’s college friend, Cole, had returned to his native northern California. Roger filled Match and Cole in on his idea. They weren’t just supportive; they thought they could make it happen. The rest, as they say, is history.

CRUSHING THE GOAL

The trio thought about how to market Roger’s idea and decided to forego the nonprofit route. “We’re for-profit, for purpose,” Match explains. All three respected the Seva Foundation, a charity working to prevent blindness via access to basic eye-care services in third-world regions. “We we’re looking to reinvent what Seva has been doing for over 35 years,” Roger says. “They’re really got this whole process fine-tuned. We wanted to utilize their resources to facilitate our mission and our vision for addressing this issue.” Seva loved the idea of a partnership and encouraged SWAP Socks to set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise capital.

They set a feasibly goal: raise enough money to fund SWAP Socks while also selling enough socks sets to fund 40 cataracts surgeries through the Seva Foundation. This fall, their six-week Indiegogo campaign garnered more than $40,000, far exceeding their expectations. “We’re able to potentially fund 300-plus cataract surgeries right off bat,” Roger says. In other words, “we crushed our social mission by seven times.”

TACKLING THE PROBLEM

SWAP Socks’ fundraising campaign just ended, which means their venture has just begun. This winter will be the inaugural sock shipment, the fulfillment of the Indiegogo orders. Since Roger, Match and Cole surpassed their goal, they’ve decided to use the extra funds raised to accompany Seva Foundation workers to Nepal in March. There, they’ll perform basic eye-care services and witness the surgeries SWAP Socks provided. Until then, Match, who does all of the designs, will get to work on new sock sets (“we’re going to push the envelope … there’s going to be some unconventional mismatching going on!”), while Roger and Cole will focus on getting the business up and running.

Match, who chose not to return to graduate school this fall so that he could focus on SWAP Socks, is confident in his decision to pursue real-world knowledge. “What they studied was tackling systems and solutions,” Match says of Roger and Cole, who both have degrees in engineering. “This is really a systematic problem. It’s another system that’s failing right now. We’re all problem-solvers, and we’ve decided to dedicate our skills and resources to tackling this problem.”