As we begin the year, it’s always helpful to look back and reflect on the things that went particularly well. While it’s easy to learn from others’ mistakes, there’s a lot to be said for emulating ideas that work. These businesses all share key qualities that make them admirable, including innovation, sustainability, creativity, and social responsibility.

Warby Parker helps people around the world see more clearly 

Warby Parker’s appeal as an innovative and admirable business is two-fold:  First, they provide a one-for-one product, (the model that originated with TOMs shoes) wherein for each pair of eyeglasses sold, the company will send someone in the developing world a pair too. Secondly, they provide more affordable eyewear here in the U.S., where glasses can also be prohibitively expensive for many people.

The result is a company that is excelling both in profitability and in their social mission; they have so far sold over a million pairs of glasses, with a million being donated as well. Bonus points for the fact that they partner with the social enterprise Vision Spring to facilitate training for optometrists and eye glass manufacturers in the same countries that they donate glasses to (India, Guatemala, and Bangladesh to name a few), so the communities also receive opportunities for sustainable income.

Novo Nordisk provides the developing world with sustainable and affordable insulin

Novo Nordisk Headquarters in Denmark.

Denmark’s Novo Nordisk is ranked 7th on the Global 100 most sustainable businesses list, which is compiled by the organization Corporate Knights Capital and unveiled at the World Economic Forum each January. The rankings are based on environmentally-friendly practices, health and safety of employees, and business sustainability, including capacity for innovation. That is no small feat for pharmaceutical companies, which face pricing challenges (drugs are extremely expensive to develop, meaning high expectations for ROI) and are often at the center of controversy.

In addition to placing in this prestigious top ten, current CEO Lars Rieben Sorensen created the World Diabetes Foundation, and has committed to selling insulin—one of the business’s primary products—at a discounted rate to developing countries.

Andela gives African programmers a fair shake in the global market


A group of Andela fellows, image via Andela.

Wired reports that Nigerian company Andela has a fantastic approach to filling the ever-growing worldwide need for programmers: they pay people to learn the skills, and then set them up with jobs. Andela refers to their concept as a talent accelerator; applicants are screened during a two week long boot camp, and the most talented, highest performing people are selected to become a part of the paid fellowship. After training for one thousand hours as a fellow, participants are considered employable developers, and are connected with job opportunities through Andela.

One of the things about Andela that stands out is co-founder Jeremy Johnson’s assertion that statistically speaking, there is a comparable genius-level population everywhere in the world, but what’s been missing is an equal distribution of opportunity. The idea that as a global population we’ll finally be gaining access to the underrepresented genius of the developing world is very exciting.

Khan Academy tells the world that education should be free, and that people can learn anything

Salman Khan, image via Khan Academy.

Founder Salman Khan, image via Khan Academy.

Khan Academy,  a nonprofit with revenue of just under two million dollars, provides free online classes in a wide variety of subjects. Their latest tagline is “You can learn anything,” based off research that says intelligence isn’t just a static capacity, but something that can be cultivated over time, regardless of age. In a world where people risk their lives to go to school, the idea of forever-free education is radical and necessary.

CEO Sal Khan himself is a huge part of the reason why Khan Academy made the list—he recently introduced two amazing ideas to reform education worldwide: a globally recognized universal degree, and the creation of a standard portfolio of work instead of college transcripts.

Anyone competing in today’s saturated job market will tell you that the time has come for a new take on the issue of credentials. The reality is that regardless of individual merit, there is only a tiny fraction of the world population that has access to the most coveted credentials and universities, and for that matter, can afford them.

Haier takes a creative approach to open innovation and management

Haier CEO, image by Zachary Boko

Haier CEO Zhang Ruimin, image by Zachary Boko

Haier is a Chinese home appliance company that takes a creative approach to management and supports open innovation—the concept that firms should be able to use internal and external sources to advance their technology.

The company runs a site called Hope, which stands for Haier Open Partnership Ecosystem, which is a platform for connecting technology vendors with customers. The platform is also a way for the company to check out emerging technology and potential partnerships.

On the management side, CEO Zhang Ruimin is credited with shaking things up by allowing employees to form internal groups and bid on their desired projects, as well as vote out incompetent managers.

Theranos changes the game with one drop of blood

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes,

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, image via Forbes.

Theranos is one of those companies that has a rockstar founder mythology: Elizabeth Holmes is an Ivy League dropout who made a breakthrough medical invention at a very young age, and went on to become a powerhouse female CEO in a male-dominated industry. It’s a great story, but what’s even more impressive is what the company aims to do.

The company has taken an integral part of our health system—drawing blood and conducting blood tests—and streamlined it to make it more effective, and less expensive. Theranos uses a finger prick instead of a needle, and produces far more tests from the tiny drop of blood than from the traditional larger amount. The company also believes in healthcare transparency and accessibility; not only are prices incredibly low (typically around ten dollars per test), but they have future plans to operate out of thousands of Walgreens pharmacies across the country.

As of 2014, the company is valued at more than nine billion.

Global inclusion and new approaches

As the world becomes more interconnected, we’re inevitably going to see business opportunities reaching into the developing world, as demonstrated above by businesses like Andela and Warby Parker that are helping to level the playing field.

New technologies will flourish, and you can see from businesses like Theranos and Haier that technological advancements coincide with creative ideas on just about everything. These admirable businesses provide a snapshot of larger trends, and the future is looking bright.

Feel inspired by any of these businesses? Have a suggestion of your own? Let us know on Twitter!

Was this article helpful?
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 3.67 out of 5)
Angelique O'Rourke
Angelique O'Rourke

Artistic + intellectual pursuits. Social justice. Actress. Model. Musician. Eugene // Portland.