William F. "Bill" Austin was born in February 1942 to J. E. "Dutch" and Zola Austin of Nixa, Missouri. His father worked as a lumber trader for Georgia-Pacific, and his mother worked in a factory. To supplement the family's income, Austin and his mother would take walks and collect bottles for recycling. During the summertime, they picked blackberries and harvested foxgloves and chittum bark for medicinal purposes. As he grew older, he had a paper route and a host of other part-time jobs.
Like his boyhood role model, Albert Schweitzer, Austin decided to become a doctor. To subsidize his pre-medical studies at the University of Minnesota, he made ear molds for a hearing aid dealer in Minneapolis. Hearing aids at that time were clumsy devices, and the medical community largely overlooked the field. Recognizing an area with growth potential and sensing that he could help more people through business than medicine, Austin discontinued his medical studies to open a hearing aid shop.
Austin approaches hearing loss as "a disability that can be fixed. Hearing should be a birthright." He spent his entire career improving hearing aid technology and sharing those advances with as many people as possible. Austin developed the first in-the-ear hearing aids, initially out of metal, then plastic. He licensed his technology to established hearing aid companies, and expanded his own business by starting a repair company, Professional Hearing Aid Service, in the basement of his home. Although it was unusual at the time, he guaranteed the repair of all makes and models at fixed rates. This guarantee became standard industry practice.
In 1970, Austin purchased an ear mold company, Starkey Laboratories, for $13,000 and consolidated his businesses under the Starkey Labs name. Improving customer service as well as technology, Austin allowed people up to 90 days to determine satisfaction with a hearing aid or they could return it for a full refund. By 1973, his company was the world's largest provider of in-the-ear hearing aids.
In 1997, Austin had an epiphany. While thinking in bed, he realized that his "calling is to help disadvantaged people hear." Having established the Starkey Hearing Foundation in 1973 to help poor Americans with hearing problems, he soon thereafter took this mission international. Austin and his foundation have sponsored more than 150 mission trips each year, to countries as varied as Vietnam, Ukraine, and the Dominican Republic, to fit and provide children with hearing aids. In fact, the Horatio Alger Association had difficulty inviting Austin to accept the 2008 Horatio Alger Award because he was on an extended mission in a remote part of India.
"It's important for us to help the children because they're the future of the world, and if we neglect them, we won't have a good future," he says. "This is a very special thing that we do for them, something they'll always remember. Our reward is in the faces and smiles of each person as we help them to hear. This is the best work we could ever do, because it's helping people, and that's what life is all about. We truly live through what we give, we live on into the future through our gifts back into our community and to humanity."
Among the many honors bestowed upon Austin for his philanthropic work are the Albert Schweitzer Leadership Award from Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership, the National Caring Award from the Caring Institute, the Humanitarian Award from Variety International Children's Fund, and an honorary doctorate from Pepperdine University.