This story appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
On a Sunday afternoon in July, it happened again. Limousines swept into St. Paul and dropped a parade of celebrities off on the red carpet at the St. Paul RiverCentre. It was the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s annual gala, and gawkers and media were snatching glimpses and gathering sound bites.
I was there and, while it was fun to see Ben Affleck, I was more interested in why he was there than that he was there.
My connection with Starkey began four summers ago when I reached out to learn about the people behind this glitzy event. My admiration has grown through conversations with Tani Austin, co-founder of the foundation, by attending meetings and galas, and by traveling to Peru for a mission.
Tani hosts a deep passion for helping others, instilled by her mother and nurtured through her personal and professional relationship with Starkey founder Bill Austin. As chief philanthropy officer she oversees a global, community-based hearing health care program, executed by paid staff and many volunteers.
When Tani and I met after the recent gala I asked how and why Starkey engages so many celebrities and what drives her to work so hard.
“If you think of people at the top of their game, hearing is critical in their level of success,” she said. “That’s how they deliver their art; that’s what keeps them in their game; that’s what helps them respond and be themselves.”
Empathy came early to Tani. As a white girl living with her mother, brother, sister (and intermittently with her father) in a predominantly Mexican-American California neighborhood, she discovered what it felt like to be in the minority. She realized she had to work harder to make friends and to be accepted.
The family lived in a sparsely furnished home and often didn’t have gas money for the car (when they had one). Yet, Tani does not recall being unhappy or wishing she were someone or somewhere else.
“I’ve been poor, but I haven’t lived poorly,” she said.
Time spent in California offered a window into different cultures and reminders not to make assumptions or let accomplishments breed arrogance.
Tani met Bill Austin after she moved to Minnesota. Bill launched Starkey Hearing Technologies 50 years ago, building it into a global hearing-aid manufacturer headquartered in Eden Prairie. Starkey Hearing Foundation came later, born to share the gift of hearing with those who want it.
In Bill, Tani recognized her mother’s work ethic and purpose-driven life. Bill’s vision became a shared passion. They’ve traveled to more than 100 countries to give many thousands of hearing aids to those who can’t afford them. The United Nations has honored their contributions.
I’ve watched Tani interact with young children who hear for the first time. I’ve watched her converse with the first ladies of Zambia and Guyana. Her grace, humility, and compassion are consistent. Her commitment is contagious.
“One thing that has resonated with the first ladies is I’m not meeting them at the statehouse or saying we will go see the mission. I’m saying if you want to see or talk to me, come to the mission. And they do,” she said.
The Austins travel most of the year, establishing new partnerships and growing existing ones. Why do they keep such a grueling schedule? It’s the transformational impact, Tani says.
“Hearing is such a soul-feeding sense because when you hear you feel. We believe the ear is the road to the heart. When you start talking about helping someone to hear we’re talking about helping him to feel – and it’s very emotional.
“It’s like a light. When you see it on the video and you see the pictures it’s beautiful, but when you’re there and you’re watching someone hear for the first time you’re seeing that sound hit their heart. And then that hits your heart and they’re seeing that hit our heart. It’s almost like your hearts are connecting in that moment. And that’s the runner’s rush.
“That’s the drug that you want again and again and one of the reasons President Clinton’s been with us eight times and President Bush has been with us three times and other people want to come back, all the athletes and the celebrities.
“I think people receive something back from us that they can’t get in importance or in politics or in celebrity or in fame. They’re able to fill their well up and give more of themselves. …
“So it’s not really about the hearing aid, it’s about that human connection and that compassion,” she continues. “I think that’s what His Holiness the Dalai Lama saw when he watched Bill work.”
When does their work end?
“True sustainability is when you’re not funding it,” Tani says. “I still need to raise money for the resources to sustain the programs but the care is sustainable, the teams are sustainable. The self-funding is going to take a few more years. We’ve got a lot more work to do.”
She adds, “I have a vision for that — but that’s another story.”