After going through a series of transformative life experiences that re-directed his path, Erine Gray, a 2004 MPAff graduate, reflected on his start-up company Aunt Bertha, now celebrating its 5th year anniversary. Aunt Bertha’s mission is simple – connect people to the services and programs available to them in a few short clicks.
In this Q&A, Erine, a TED Fellow (his TED talk can be seen here) and Unreasonable Institute Fellow, discusses his journey from a public policy career to starting Aunt Bertha.
How did your degree in public policy put you on a new career path?
Erine: At LBJ, I was in a Policy Research Project class with Professor Pat Wong, which focused on a Medicaid carve-out program to help indigent people gain healthcare access. I found the work to be interesting because I do believe in public and private partnerships and that a lot of good can be done in the private sector with oversight. But, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had always been interested in helping the poor through good social policy, however, I had experienced this type of policy as a kid – and I knew that it was terribly inefficient.
It was a slow process, but my degree certainly got me to my next job, which was working at the city of Austin and seeing how city hall works. From there, it led me to my next job working in contracting with a large health and human services company that helped Texas transform the way people get enrolled in Medicaid, food stamps, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). I wouldn’t have been able to go down that path at all had it not been for the LBJ School.
What drove you to the idea for starting Aunt Bertha?
Erine: There wasn’t an “ah ha” moment but more like a series of life experiences that led to it. My mom was permanently disabled when I was 17 and my dad was her caretaker so during that process he made quite a bit of sacrifices for her. We weren’t rich by any means; we were a blue-collar family and were fortunate in that my mom was employed and insured. But living through this experience, I have seen the toll that it takes on a family who isn’t really prepared to navigate complex health-care scenarios.
When you start to look at the numbers, there are a lot of people who are disabled and there are a myriad of individuals, agencies and programs available to take care of people with special needs. But, the process of making people aware of certain resources is unnecessarily complex.
From a policy perspective, I also started to see how governments administer programs, which in my view are also terribly inefficient. After a stint in the agenda office for the City of Austin and then working as a contractor of the state, I started to realize in my mind that you can get things done at scale but the task is like swimming upstream.
I started thinking about the idea for Aunt Bertha – and recruited several of my friends and LBJ classmates, as we all thought if we were going to make a dramatic change, we were going to have to do it outside the agency. We started focusing on solving the two most important problems – one of them being people should be able to find help in seconds if the program exists, and the second is that people should be able to apply in a simple way so they can get a decision on whether they qualify or not for that program. That’s essentially our business model. The search is free. We charge agencies a fee for using our software and that funds the search.
Where do you see the company five years from now or what do you hope to have achieved by then?
Erine: That’s a good question and one I don’t really get the luxury of thinking about as I’m usually focusing on the fire today. In five years, if we’re a success, then we are on every social worker’s desk in the United States as the default search engine. These social workers have five, 10, or 20 clients coming in with desperate situations and in most major cities, and in many cases, they’re not referring people to a program just down the street because they don’t’ know about it. So we want to be the go-to search engine for social workers, and that’s our focus. The beauty in that goal is the data and information that we’ll be able to see. Because people use our search platform, over time, we’re going to be able to see cohorts and examine who’s successful and who isn’t and we’re excited about that potential. It can almost be a big data warehouse for helping organizations more successfully fundraise because they have more data to prove their impact.
What do you think has been the biggest breakthrough for you since Aunt Bertha’s inception?
Erine: A few things have been breakthroughs for us. We had a chance very early on in our growth to go through an incubator program called the Unreasonable Institute, a six-week program in Boulder, Colorado, that allowed us to meet with investors and successful entrepreneurs in the social impact space to understand what it takes to fundraise and be successful. We were with 22 other entrepreneurs from around the world. That atmosphere created mutual inspiration and that was a big breakthrough for us because it sparked an understanding in my mind of what it really takes to succeed. We met three out of four of our first investors from that program and we just secured a new investor that I had met that day.
Another big breakthrough was our first few customers. We have customers from large-scale companies to city governments to state programs. The customer breakthrough has meant the most because at the end of the day, the most important thing for a start-up is that you survive. So that’s been great in terms of our confidence and of where we’re able to provide a good value to those organizations that have very similar goals.
If you had one piece of advice to give to graduates of this year’s class, what would that be?
Erine: My advice would be if you have a choice, go deep into an agency, if you haven’t done so, to try and understand what people are facing. I think what you’re going to find is that that’s where the magic is and that’s where you’re going to be able to make a difference. It’s not going to be as fast as you had hoped, but in almost all cases over the course of my past 11 years, I’ve learned that you can move up quickly and get to the heart of a real problem. Find your passion and delve into it, learn as much as you can, and try to be that person who finds the solution.