Starkey Hearing Foundation and Technologies founder Bill Austin has successfully built his brand on a global scale, all in the name of serving the hearing-impaired—and not his pocket. The low-key billionaire that he is, he tells Asian Dragon’s Olivia Limpe-Aw in a rare interview how he found a career in fitting hearing aids through divine intervention and unexplainable phenomena.
A man comes into the Starkey office, desperate, carrying what seem to be pieces of a crushed hearing aid. He says the aid belongs to his mother, who is in a coma, and is in her late 90s. Bill and his son Greg are in the office, and the man is pleading. “Quick, you must fix this hearing aid, there’s no time. She’s in a coma and we don’t know if she will wake up. If she does, we’d like her to hear us.”
Greg fixes the aid, fits it on the mother, and when he turns up the volume, she wakes up and talks to her children. That same afternoon, she asks to be brought to the window, and says, “You know, it really is a beautiful day.” The words turn out to be her last.
The Starkey Hearing Foundation has been helping millions of people all over the world regain their hearing for years now, providing free consultations, hearing aids, and aftercare programs for those who cannot afford it. These life-changing situations may be a common scenario during fittings and missions, but for Starkey Hearing Foundation’s founder Bill Austin, every patient brings a uniquely memorable moment, another opportunity to spread the love.
Starkey Hearing Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Starkey Hearing Technologies, an international leader in manufacturing and delivering advanced hearing solutions. In fact, the relationship between the foundation and the manufacturer is designed in a way to keep funneling financial support to the foundation. Part of every sale at Starkey Hearing Technologies goes to the foundation.
Founded in 1967 by Bill Austin with the premise, “Alone we can’t do much; together, we can change the world,” Starkey Hearing Foundation and Technologies became a world-renowned name in the treatment of hearing loss, and in the development and distribution of hearing aids. The foundation, especially, had made quite an impact globally, providing free hearing aids and support to millions of people in the most far-flung places. Co-founder of Starkey Hearing Foundation and wife to Bill, Tani Austin, shares that Bill is so passionate about what they are doing, “He thinks he’s playing golf every day, that it’s not work.”
“I went from the University of Oregon to the University of Minnesota with the intention of becoming a missionary doctor. But at the University of Minnesota, while I was there, I took a job making earpieces for hearing aids to pay my tuition. I thought of ways to make hearing aids better and more efficient, but I knew I was still going to be a doctor,” Bill shares.
“One day, an old man came in and they couldn’t find anyone who could help. I solved his problem and made his hearing very good. I won’t forget what I saw in his eyes, what it meant for him to hear. I went home, I lay down on the bed, and I said to myself, ‘Bill, the reason you want to be a doctor is so you can help people. If you do this hearing work, you’ll be able to help people and you won’t kill anyone. As a doctor, you’re sure to kill many.’”
At first, he was only teasing himself, but it turned out to be his calling. By the time he was in his 20s, he had found his direction in life, reaffirmed by a vision he had. “The immediate message I received was that I was to use hearing to reflect His love, and that’s what was important. That I should use hearing to let people know that they are worth caring about. By this, I would bring understanding between peoples, thereby reducing conflict in the world.
“This was a very big job,” Bill admits. “I wanted to cry out that it’s impossible. But I couldn’t do that because I promised to serve if I received the direction.”
Years after, in 2011, Bill claims that he met St. Michael, the archangel himself. And it was the biggest affirmation of his life. He was in Teluka, Mexico, fitting what seemed to be thousands of people. Then comes a woman with her son, who asks to pull him from the crowd.
“She said, ‘He sees angels and he has no friends because people think he’s crazy, but he made me bring him because he said there’s a message for you.’ I said I was busy watching the patients, but as soon as I have time I will step away. In a few minutes when everything seemed to be okay, I thought I will go to them. I saw him and he was looking over my head with his funny eyes, and said, ‘There’s five angels. This must be really important because there’s San Miguel—and never in my life have I seen San Miguel. They know you would like more time to serve; you can have it, but not so much.’
“I think it was a message to get busy,” he laughs, then continues. “He then tells me, ‘San Miguel would like to speak to you without me. Close your eyes.’ So I closed my eyes but I didn’t hear anything. No voice, no vision, no nothing. When he asked, ‘What did San Miguel say?’ I opened my mouth to say, ‘Nothing,’ but instead, out of my mouth came, ‘You know what to do, do it.’ It came out of my mouth and didn’t even sound like my voice. Here’s where I got goose bumps. He said to me, looking at me, ‘Did you see San Miguel?’ Again, I opened my mouth to say ‘No’ but all of a sudden, right into my eyes, were eyes like my father. These burning, bright, blue eyes. You don’t have blue eyes in Mexico and these eyes were looking right straight into my eyes. Out my mouth came ‘You are San Miguel’ and my whole body was electrified, goose bumps everywhere. He just smiled and laughed and never said anything more. That was it. And so I knew I would have more time to do this job…
The inspiring stories of Bill Austin and his wife Tani are inside Asian Dragon Magazine’s anniversary August-September 2016 issue. Read their full story inside the magazine, available in all leading bookstores nationwide or downloadable from the Asian Dragon Magazine App, free on Google Play Store, iTunes, and Amazon.
[Photograph: Jovel Lorenzo]