Bill Austin: Businessman, Philanthropist, Hero

Businessman and philanthropist Bill Austin

Businessman and humanitarian Bill Austin

It is always an honor to interview great people who are making a difference in the world. The mission of Bill Austin, CEO of Starkey Hearing Technologies, is nothing short of heroic.

At the start of our interview for Twin Cities Business magazine, Bill told me, “As a young man, I felt I belonged to the world, but I didn’t know what that meant.” More than a million disadvantaged, hearing-impaired men, women and children around the world are thankful that it didn’t take him long to gain clarity about his destiny.


Inspired by Albert Schweitzer’s work in Africa, eighteen-year-old Bill Austin decided to become a missionary doctor. Leaving his family in Oregon, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1960. To earn tuition money, he worked as an ear-mold technician at his uncle’s downtown Minneapolis hearing aid company. “As I was doing that work, I thought about how hearing aids could be manufactured more efficiently so people might hear better,” Austin recalls. “And I kept saying to myself, ‘Don’t think about those things; you’re going to be a doctor.’”

One day he was called in to help fit an elderly man with a hearing aid and was deeply moved by the man’s joyous reaction. That night, Austin laid on a single bed in his rented room at 2770 Dean Boulevard in Minneapolis and stared at the ceiling. “I said to myself out loud, ‘Bill, the reason you want to be a doctor is so you can help people. If you do this work, you’ll be able to help people and you won’t kill anyone; as a doctor, you’re sure to kill many.’”

Realizing that a business employing teams of people could accomplish more than even the most well-intentioned of doctors, Austin abandoned his medical plans. “I changed the course of my life instantly from that one looking-at-the-ceiling conversation with myself,” he says. “I saw the opportunity to be a greater gift by being part of a team that had a number of hands and a number of hearts that could impact the world.”

In 1970, Austin paid $13,000 for Starkey Laboratories, a three-person firm in Maple Plain, and merged it with the hearing aid repair business he had started in the basement of his Hopkins home. Seventeen months later, Starkey’s custom in-the-ear hearing aids were introduced to the market. Austin sent out a newsletter stating that the company served “the hearing loss, not the pocketbook,” so customers who couldn’t afford the hearing aid could simply write “Starkey Fund” on the order.

Five years later, that charitable corporate policy was expanded into the international market and the world hasn’t been the same. Last year alone, the Starkey Hearing Foundation gave away 165,000 hearing aids to people in need, more than 90 percent of whom lived outside U.S. borders.

Walter J. Duffy, Jr., former City Attorney and Chief Legal Officer of the City of Minneapolis and the founder of Twin Cities-based Duffy Law Firm, PLLC, nominated Starkey for the award. “Through the Starkey Hearing Foundation, the gift of hearing is given to hundreds of thousands of people,” Duffy says. “Just imagine the joy of a child who experiences this life-changing event. This is humanitarianism of the highest order.”

At 72, Austin remains CEO and sole owner of Starkey Hearing Technologies, now one of the largest hearing aid manufacturers in the world. Starkey sells more than 1.1 million hearing aids a year, employs 3,600 people, operates 21 facilities and conducts business in more than 100 markets worldwide.

Austin himself leads numerous overseas missions for ten months out of the year, only returning to Minnesota for a few days or weeks at a time. He’s joined on his travels by teams of Starkey audiologists and staff members, customers in the hearing care business, audiologists from other parts of the world and volunteers on the ground in destination countries. The size of the team and the length of the stay vary according to the scope of the mission. In most of the countries served, a team of locals is put on the payroll to handle after-care issues. “We have a huge Starkey India team that tests hearing all year long,” Austin says. “They provide speech therapists for local schools and provide follow-up care with audiologists on our team. We go to India twice a year and give away as many as 40,000 hearing aids a year there.”

Starkey Hearing Foundation teams return every year to most of the 100-plus countries they’ve visited except those that are too dangerous for foreigners. “We had 8,000 people ready and waiting in Egypt when Arab Spring hit; Mubarak himself was in line to get a hearing aid and wanted me to take care of him when I was there,” Austin says. “We were told to wait because the military couldn’t guarantee us security.”

Recognizing that the Egyptian uprising would elevate tensions in the Middle East, Austin felt the need to do something to try to calm the situation. His solution? Adding Israelis, including the son-in-law of Israeli president Shimon Peres, to the Starkey team going in to Palestine. “The first day, the people who were sent to guard us had their guns in their hands at all times,” Austin says. “By the second day, the guns were on their backs and they were helping us with hearing aids. They told their superiors what was going on and the generals started to come down. They met their counterparts from the Israeli side, had lunch together every day and worked together with us on missions. They exchanged e-mails and became friends.”

Austin still marvels at the enormity of what was accomplished. “If you’re going to change something, you can’t do it by treaty,” he says. “You have to change the hearts and minds of the populace if you’re going to have a consciousness shift. And you can’t do it by impacting just a few, so we knew we had to spread the message across Palestine from one end to the other. Even though that was what we were trying to do, it was still stunning to me to see how effective it was. Shimon Peres called me himself and told me we had done more than I could imagine to create understanding between the peoples.”


Click on the link below to download a nineteen-page PDF detailing the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s goals and accomplishments.



Phil is the author of Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, a comprehensive guide to living a spiritual life. Who will benefit from reading it?

Anyone who is on a spiritual path, or wants to start one
Anyone who loves life, or wants to learn how to
Anyone who is happy, or wants to be happier

To order your copy of Through God’s Eyes, go to OR order from Amazon at OR for an inscribed copy, click here to e-mail Phil for information.

Click here for more information about Through God’s Eyes.
Click here to ask Phil to add you to his e-mail list for updates on his blog and books.

Through God’s Eyes won first place in the “Spirituality and Inspirational” category at the San Diego Book Awards on June 22, 2013.

Here is a two-minute video introduction to Through God’s Eyes.

Want to learn more about Through God’s Eyes? Here is a free 40-page PDF sampler from the book that includes:

• an overview of the book
• the complete table of contents
• the Foreword by Caroline Myss
• my Introduction
• chapter excerpts
• a sample end-of-chapter story
• endorsements from authors and thought leaders

Just click on the link below to download your free PDF sampler!


Phil’s eBook, The Logic of Living a Spiritual Life: Supporting a Life of Faith Through Logic and Reason, is now available for 99 cents on Amazon.

Order it at

In this eBook, you’ll find answers to questions like:
• What is the cornerstone of a spiritual life, and why?
• What is the secret to liberating yourself from other people’s judgments and expectations?
• Why is there an exception to “Everything happens for a reason”?

Those who worship logic instead of God are only half right. Not only is it logical to believe in God and to live a faith-based life, the existence of a loving, benevolent God that governs all creation is perhaps the only systematic worldview that explains every aspect of life.

Schedule a Mastery Mentoring phone session with Phil to learn how to apply principles of spiritual living more effortlessly and effectively. Priced affordably! Click here to e-mail Phil for details.

SiSe_fullcover_final.inddPhil is also the author of Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of 45 inspiring, life-changing stories from prominent people he interviewed, including Joan Borysenko, Deepak Chopra, geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford, Dr. Larry Dossey, Wayne Dyer, Dan Millman, Caroline Myss, Dr. Christiane Northrup, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, Dr. Bernie Siegel, James Van Praagh, singer Billy Vera, Doreen Virtue, Neale Donald Walsch, and bassist Victor Wooten.

Here is a three-minute video that introduces you to Phil and his book. Click here to order Sixty Seconds. Click here to ask Phil to add you to his e-mail list for updates on his blog and books.

Reading this book is like spending a few minutes face to face with each of the contributors and listening to their personal stories. Click here to read unsolicited testimonials from readers. Learn more by visiting the official Sixty Seconds website.

Sixty Seconds was one of three finalists in the General Interest/How-To category at the 12th annual Visionary Awards presented by COVR (Coalition of Visionary Resources) in Denver on June 27, 2009.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: