Bill Austin on the Evolution of Starkey

Starkey's owner and chairman reflects on 60+ years in hearing healthcare and the joy of helping others reconnect with the world

I vividly remember the moment I discovered my passion for helping people with hearing loss. I took a job working at a small earmold repair shop in the 1960s. One day, a man with hearing loss came in, and I was the only one around to assist him.

With hearing aids that fit him properly, his whole face lit up. It was like an internal flame had been reignited, and he was in awe of the world around him. While I had previously dreamt of being a doctor, it was in this moment that my life changed forever. I knew hearing health was my path forward.

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Bill Austin, owner and chair of Starkey.

When I purchased Starkey in 1967, it was to give people something that was missing in the hearing industry: exceptional customer service and an unrelenting focus on the patient. As we’ve grown to become the largest American-owned hearing aid manufacturer, I’ve always held that first fitting in my heart.

Early on, Starkey led the way in technological advancements of hearing aids. We established the first risk-free, 90-day return policy; the first custom, in-the-ear products and the first completely-in-canal devices in our industry. When President Ronald Reagan publicly announced he was fit with a Starkey hearing aid in 1983, the first U.S. president to do so, we saw a spike in social acceptance of treating hearing loss and wearing hearing aids like never before. By the end of the year, industry sales had soared over 30%.

I used to envision hearing aids as personal assistants with features so intriguing even those without hearing loss might be interested in wearing one. I knew we could do more to show the connection between hearing health and overall health by creating meaningful devices that not only helped people hear better, but helped them live better lives. Livio AI made this a reality in 2018 as the first device with both integrated sensors and artificial intelligence, the ability to translate 27 languages, track a user’s physical and cognitive activity and alert loved ones if a user had fallen.

While these milestones have revolutionized the hearing health industry, more importantly, they have impacted countless lives around the world. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

However, six decades in this industry have taught me technology can only go so far. You must always lead with your heart. Last year, Starkey created a corporate social responsibility program called Starkey Cares to provide even more access to hearing health resources and technology. We’ve been able to further that mission through a partnership with Special Olympics, providing athletes all over the world the hearing health resources they deserve to feel connected to the world of sports around them.

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Starkey Cares provided over 100 Special Olympics athletes with hearing aids this June at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Pictured here, Starkey Cares volunteer David Kelley assists Special Olympics athlete Patrick Davis.

I’m grateful for what we’ve achieved over the past 60 years but have never lost sight of what really matters. Staying grounded in my faith and beliefs, I’ve always gotten my joy from helping others and seeing people with hearing loss become reconnected to their world. I’ve worked to instill this same passion into every employee, some of whom have been at Starkey for 40 or 50 years. As our technology has advanced, our core purpose has always been to put caring into what we do. This will never change. It’s the Starkey way.

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Actor and UNESCO envoy Forest Whitaker, Bill Austin, the Dalai Lama, and Tani Austin took part in a panel discussion about compassion, giving, and leadership at Starkey's Minneapolis headquarters in June 2017.

If you feel passionately about something, pursue it with all your heart. Achieving your greatest dreams can’t be done alone, but rather by building a caring and dedicated team that instills passion into every customer or patient they interact with. Believe in your ideas, even if it takes the rest of society decades to catch up or feel the true impact of your work. It can’t happen overnight, but by doing the right thing because you believe in it, the rest will fall into place.

My greatest hope is to have created something for this world that will live on past my time, and I’m thankful for each experience I’ve had and each individual who has helped Starkey become what it is today. I couldn’t have done it myself, and I couldn’t have imagined how far this journey would take me.