Meet Bradford Manning, Co-Founder of Two Blind Brothers
Bradford and Bryan Manning have a story unlike many others. Both visually impaired since childhood, they joined forces to design the softest, most comfortable clothing line inspired entirely by their sense of touch. Without taking a penny for their own profit, the brothers are committed to investing in the medical research that could someday provide a cure for the 11 million individuals around the world who suffer from the same condition. We recently had the honor of sitting down with Bradford to hear more about the story behind Two Blind Brothers, what it is like living with his diagnosis, as well as just how close we are to a cure.
You and your brother both grew up with a rare ocular disease that has affected your central vision and resulted in significant visual impairment. Can you share a little bit more about what it is like living with this condition? What senses have you leaned on in the absence of sight, and how has it affected your path in life?
Our condition is called Stargardt’s disease, which destroys your central vision over time. It’s a tough diagnosis because it is incurable and the progression isn’t well understood. The doctor told us to prepare for a life of vision loss. This was hardest for our parents to hear. We were young enough to not fully understand what it meant. Our parents never allowed us to feel handicapped, which helped us to be who we are today.
There are lots of tricks to navigating everyday life. Our biggest challenges are being able to recognize faces and read small print. When it comes to clothing, we are obsessed with the feeling of the fabric. It is our first way of determining quality. We rely on asking strangers for help in most cases. We use our iPhones to take pictures and zoom in on everything (restaurant menus, airport arrival/departure screens, etc.). When it comes to recognizing people, we often stumble through a few minutes of conversation before we realize who we’re speaking with. It isn’t immediately obvious to strangers or new friends that we can’t see. It creates awkward situations, but it’s taught us how to be comfortable and take responsibility for getting through them.
Entrepreneurship presents an opportunity for each of us to leverage our own unique skills and experiences to build a successful business. The traveler launches a social enterprise working with artisans in India. The blind brothers launch a boutique clothing line based on their sense of touch. How has blindness enabled you to excel as social entrepreneurs?
Customers are tired of companies that aren’t authentic. Social entrepreneurship is successful because it is bringing personal values to products. In a world with thousands of clothing brands, we are proud of our quality and our cause. We are honored that customers, media, the visually-impaired community, and others like Ellen Degeneres and Sir Richard Branson are lifting us up.
Ok, so we have to ask - what exactly makes this the perfect shirt? And how did you get there?
You’ll know from the moment you touch one of our shirts. We’ve spent our lives focused on “touch”. These shirts are made with ultra luxurious fabrics in the heart of New York City. All of the profits go to curing blindness through pre-clinical research.
It started with us sourcing hundreds of fabrics. We had favorites and shared them with our friends and other visually-impaired friends. We ultimately settled on this stunning bamboo cotton blend that we are thrilled with. A lot of clothes feel soft to the touch in the store, but it’s a different story to wear them all day. We made sure the “feel” was exceptional. People are always impressed with the fabric.
Neither you nor your brother take a penny of profit from the company. You’ve built the business with a unique motivation to reinvest in the medical research that could someday provide a cure or treatment for the very condition which inspired the venture in the first place. Tell us more about the impact that a customer can expect to have when they purchase a Two Blind Brothers shirt.
We’ve been fortunate in our prior careers. Bradford ran a small private equity business for five years prior to starting Two Blind Brothers. Bryan has worked in data sales for Oracle and S&P Global. In a typical job setting, we definitely had trouble keeping up on certain tasks that require a lot of vision, but we focused on things that we were strong at like sales, connecting with people, and managing tasks. This allowed us to be successful despite the visual impairment. We also found ourselves working longer hours to keep up because things like reading and emails would take up a lot of our time.
We care a lot more about curing blindness than putting another dollar in our pocket. It has been incredibly tough to launch this project, but it’s done out of a sincere passion for the cause and the work. We are living through a medical revolution. We are on the 5-yard line to curing blindness. The eye happens to be the candidate organ for major breakthroughs for a variety of scientific reasons, like it’s unique immune-privileged status in the body. All we need are the funds to get through clinical trials because the science is validated. When we were diagnosed, the doctor sent us home to prepare for a life of vision loss. Our customers are changing that conversation by getting research into clinical trials.
That impact serves as a unique motivation for success. How has the urgency to benefit 11 million people suffering from Stargardt's disease affect your decisions as an entrepreneur? What’s on the line if Two Blind Brothers fails?
If we fail, we fail those 11 million people and their families. We hear from folks with our condition and similar issues everyday. They inspire us. We won’t disclose their names here, but losing one’s eyesight is terrifying to a lot of people. Those who face these diagnoses are full of questions. If we can serve as one example of how to get through it, we are honored. We were lucky to have parents that taught us to embrace challenge rather than avoid it because challenges are where you grow and find fulfillment. This is a powerful message that we try to share with the folks that reach out to us.
We wake up everyday focused on our mission along with other research organizations like the Foundation Fighting Blindness.