Why Hearing and Listening are Different, and Can Change Lives: With Bill Austin

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

“…hearing can change lives and bring communities together in ways nobody thought possible.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Austin, founder of Starkey Hearing Foundation. He has more than 50 years of experience in the global hearing industry. He has turned Starkey Labs, a small ear mold company he purchased in 1970 for $13,000, into Starkey Hearing Technologies, the largest hearing aid manufacturer in the U.S.
As the owner and CEO of Starkey Hearing Technologies, Bill has dedicated his life to advancing and accelerating the performance of the hearing industry. The company constantly sets new standards in the design, development, and distribution of comprehensive hearing solutions.
No matter how much success he achieves in business, Bill is always recognized for his generosity and steadfast belief that the gift of hearing can change the world. He founded Starkey Hearing Foundation with his personal mission and vision: so the world may hear. He leads the foundation on dozens of hearing missions every year, having visited more than 100 countries to give the gift of hearing. With this vision, Starkey Hearing Foundation is providing more than 100,000 hearing aids to people in need annually.
Bill has received many honors for his humanitarian work, most recently being named the first Goodwill Global Ambassador for Ear and Hearing Health by the United Nations. Additional honors include the Horatio Alger Award, Mexico’s Aztec Eagle Award, the Jefferson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Leadership Award, the National Caring Award, and the Humanitarian Award from Variety International.
Because of Bill’s passion and commitment, the world has become a better place for people with hearing loss.

Thanks for doing this with us. What is your backstory?

My story begins over 150 years ago. I would not be here today if it had not been for an unrecognized hero during the Civil War who saved my great-grandfather and then gifted him a small parcel of land. That compassionate gift, that small endowment of land and the selflessness of both my great-grandfather and grandfather afterwards, show the true power of caring; how a small act of kindness can have a lasting impact for years to come. I grew up admiring these men, wanting to be like them, and wanting do something impactful in this world. In 1961 when I began working at The Minnesota Hearing Aid Center, I discovered that chance, and from that day forward, I have dedicated my life to helping people hear around the world. Where I am today all comes back to a man I never knew. It wasn’t very significant, what he did. It was a simple act of kindness. But that simple act has now impacted millions of people around the world and will continue to do so for years to come.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I’ve accumulated a lot of stories over the last 50 years in this industry, and have seen how hearing can change lives and bring communities together in ways nobody thought possible. Hearing loss is a very personal issue, but it affects more than just the person experiencing it. I’ve been blessed to be in a position to change people’s lives every day. Whether it’s a former president, a global leader, a steel mill worker, a Fortune 500 CEO, or a young child hearing his mother’s voice for the first time — every person has a story and the opportunity for a brighter future.

What exactly does your company do?

We change people’s lives. Starkey Hearing Technologies is more than just a global leader in developing innovative hearing technologies. We work to change lives by connecting and empowering people through hearing solutions and educational initiatives around the globe. As of 2017, our company operates 22 facilities with more than 5,000 employees in more than 100 markets worldwide.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story explaining?

Our company is successful because of every single person in it. Starkey is more than just a business, it’s a family. We are there for each other during good times and bad, and we know each person and department is integral to our success. But more than that, we are united by our caring spirits and the mutual desire to give back. This spirit shined especially during the last couple of weeks as Starkey Hearing Technologies employees came together to fill three giant containers with disaster relief supplies to aid those in the Caribbean who’ve been impacted by the recent natural disasters.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped you get you to where you are?

My wife, Tani. She has been with me through thick and thin, helping to guide the philanthropic efforts of Starkey Hearing Technologies and drive forward the expanded vision and efforts for Starkey Hearing Foundation’s hearing health programs around the world. I could not be more grateful for her kindness, determination, selfless nature and inspiration. Together, we are a team, and I am thankful each day for her partnership on this journey of sharing and caring.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My success is shared with everyone in the Starkey family. Starkey was founded alongside a desire to give back to those in need, our core premise — “Alone we can’t do much. Together we change the world.” — evolved into the official non-profit Starkey Hearing Foundation. Since then, we have given the gift of hearing to more than one million children and adults in need in more than 100 countries around the world.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I become CEO,” and why?

  1. Always be open to learning more. I’ve been in this industry for over 50 years, and in that time, the way hearing aids are designed and created and how we approach hearing health has changed drastically. The key thing I’ve learned is always be open to learning, or truly listening. Listening has helped us improve hearing. You can either adapt with change and revolutionize your business, or you can be left behind.
  2. Have a servant mentality. Business is about people, not profits. People are the bottom line. Starkey’s core remains anchored around caring and giving to those in need, and that same mentality is how we approach every aspect of our day-to-day business. With a mindset to always serve others better, we lead the way in providing above-and-beyond service to our customers and their patients.
  3. Less can be more. As a company on the cusp of a technology revolution, we’ve learned that sometimes less is more. There have been times where we or a competitor has looked to add more features, more capabilities, more “gadgets” to hearing devices, and what we’ve found is that more isn’t always better.
  4. It takes a team. A big part of being a leader is building a team with whom you can grow. That means you take the time to look for the best people, hire the brightest minds and look for opportunity where you least expect it. When you build a team this way, each person brings something unique to the table and opens the door for greater impact and change. Starkey is built this way, with each person playing an integral role in our mission to help the world hear.
  5. Success is about helping others. Success for me is simple. It is helping people connect to their family, friends and life again through hearing. I wake up every day passionate about what I do, and I go to bed every night satisfied with what I’ve done. Regardless of whether my day includes helping one person, five or hundreds, if one person reconnects to the world around them, if I have given them back the opportunity to be the best they can be, then I consider the day successful.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why?

Of all the inspiring people I’ve looked up to in my lifetime, humanitarian and physician Albert Schweitzer would be my choice. His missionary work has inspired me to seek opportunity after opportunity to bring about change in our world, and there is one quote of his I still look to for daily inspiration: “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.” If I could have lunch with Dr. Schweitzer, it would be a privilege to share with him all the stories and hopes and dreams of the lives I have been so fortunate and honored to impact through the gift of hearing, to share with him what his life inspired.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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