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Optical’s Most Influential Women: On Leadership, COVID-19 and Community

Four of Vision Monday’s 2020 Most Influential Women in Optical honorees were featured on the Virtual EYE2EYE Series, a complimentary program of virtual panels and interactive conversations inspired by Vision Expo’s EYE2EYE educational series.

Moderated by Marge Axelrad, senior vice president and editorial director at Vision Monday (VM), the webinar’s panelists were considered this year’s rising stars, innovators and modern mentors. They shared their views on the future of vision care, career goals and what they believe are the priorities for young female leaders. 

Introducing the Honorees

Mollie Tavel Kaback is the director of growth initiatives and community engagement at Dr. Tavel Family Eye Care in Indiana (USA), a third generation, family-run business. She focuses on the growth of the company, from technology to community relations. 

“I’m the only female on the leadership team. Our family members all have different backgrounds and experience in the industry, and in managing a crisis,” she said, adding that she’s met many women who were adept in managing crises.

Camille Cohen, an optometrist at Pearle Vision in New York City, earned her Doctorate in Optometry from Salus University before joining her brother as a business partner. She admitted that it was not easy being in a position with employees who are older and more experienced than her.

“We have more women in leadership positions, but from my personal experience, very often people assume that I’m a technician or a nurse. Sometimes it’s well-received, but sometimes our authority and experience are questioned.

“It helps to have a network of strong women around me, who can step in and give me support,” she said. 

Brooke Hargrove, co-owner of Empire Optical in Tulsa, Oklahoma (USA), worked as a nurse before setting up the optical store with her husband last year. She was well aware of the anxiety and worries caused by the pandemic, and took steps to manage them by talking to employees, as well as with customers, to keep their emotions calm. 

The fourth panelist, Leigh Berberian, is director of marketing at Todd Rogers Eyewear (Massachusetts, USA). Joking that she married into the business, she explained that her husband is the founder of the company. 

“I am trying to maintain optimism in my own ways. We always base our brand on ‘feel-good’ things. I have been trying to reach out and to connect with others, staying true to the hope that everything will be okay,” she said.

COVID-19 Impacts in Optical

The panelists discussed how women in leadership roles can contribute to the optical industry during the pandemic, and further, the changes the industry needs to undertake.  

The common understanding is that there is a new level of doing things remotely. There are enhanced safety measures in place to protect against COVID-19, and visits to opticians are through appointments only. Hygiene has also been heightened across the board. 

Kaback said that staffing became more predictable once they realized that certain aspects of the business could be done from home, such as billing or managing the retail operation.

The panel agreed that today, there are numerous opportunities for suppliers, vendors and eye care partners to facilitate interaction and conversation in the community. 

“For example, if you’re supplying face masks to local schools, you have the opportunity to introduce your local eye care provider to their service and resources,” said Kaback. “We have been trying to get inroads to the school partners and reaching out to parents who are watching their kids.”

Supporting the Local Community

Indeed, community support is of great need and importance. Optical companies should ask what they can do to help via products and services — which will also be helpful to the growth of their businesses.

For example, Dr. Cohen is working with the National Optometric Association (NOA) on a program to provide free eye care and eyewear to minority communities. She has been active in the NOA, which was founded in 1969, and has served as director of communications and editor of the organization’s magazine.  

“Education is important,” she stressed. “I see how desperate a family can be when they don’t have a laptop, and thus, no access. I believe providing eye care and eyewear to those in need is important for the generation that is coming up,” she added.

Kaback, who has personal experience with the help and support of other women leaders, shared about her “boomerang” work life. After leaving her family’s business, she began her own journey in the healthcare industry in public relations, where she worked with great female mentors for three years.

“These are women who wanted to support other up-and-coming women. And from them, I saw successful family relationships and other business opportunities. That was when I considered coming back to my family business — and now I look at the industry from a different point-of-view,” she said. 

Kaback met a group of Transitions Change Agents and was encouraged by the fact that many industries are filled with people who want to help others.

“Among them are some incredibly smart and inspiring women leaders in the optical industry, and they have guided me along,” she enthused.

The Bright Future of Women in Optical

So, what are the important things that today’s women — with an entrepreneurial mindset — can contribute to the industry? Having a common voice is important, according to Berberian. 

“Americans don’t really understand who opticians are and what they do. Now we have a golden opportunity in marketing: To find an optical community and to hit that point home.  

“Instead of looking at one another as competitors, we should find a commonality, a common voice. This can help move each other forward. It also gives the public a better, and healthier, understanding of how they choose eyewear and why they go for eye care. We have not done a good job, and now is the time,” added Berberian.

Hargrove, who is a mother of three, said she is always intentional when it comes to hiring women with families — and in turn, helping them navigate their careers. 

“We should be more understanding of people, especially at this time. We need to have more patience. Women should empower each other more than judging,” she said.

Kaback agreed that it is important to support each other during this time, and one way to do that is through pricing. She disclosed that her company offers a program that converts payments into installments for their customers.

To Dr. Cohen, public health education is vital to emphasize why the eye care and eyewear industry are important. 

“Today more people have binocular vision problems, and also follow-up with glaucoma care. And if you have a family history of diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol, it can affect your eyes. But, we must stress the importance of an annual eye examination. With that, not only you are preserving your life, but also your sight as well,” she said.

Compared to the past, there are fewer barriers and a lot more opportunities for women leaders in the optical industry. But there is still a lot of work to do.

On influencing more young black women to go into the eye care profession, Dr. Cohen said visibility is key for people to see the opportunity. Black Americans comprise 13 percent of the population, but only occupy 3 percent of the optical profession.

The NOA’s Vision in the Future program seeks to provide a scholarship and mentorship pathway to historically black colleges and universities. The first round of recipients were awarded this year to four young women, said Dr. Cohen.  

She is challenged to take on a mentorship role in the education of young students, so that their families are also educated on all the opportunities available to them.

Editor’s Note: Vision Expo’s Virtual EYE2EYE Series: “Listen In to Tomorrow! A Conversation with Four of VM’s 2020 Most Influential Women in Optical” webinar took place on August 12, 2020. Reporting for this story also took place during the webinar.

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