By Stanley Florek
Erine Gray knows firsthand how hard it is to find affordable care when someone close to you faces a chronic medical issue. His experience searching over 20 locations to find the right service provider for a disabled family member led him to start an innovative business with a social mission. Aunt Bertha
streamlines the way people in need find service providers who can help them. The company makes money by providing these same providers with software to manage their own “customers” – the millions of people who need some help getting the basics of life: food, shelter, and medical care.
Erine grew up in a small town in western New York, where he had early entrepreneurial success, buying sportscards from his fellow 11-year-olds and re-selling them at a profit to local collectibles shops. While in college he sold books door to door, and programmed software applications for the Kelly School of Business at Indiana University. His computer skills led him to an Austin-based job consulting to major corporate customers inluding Dell. He flew in to New York City at 1:00am on September 11th intending to provide his services to an insurance firm in Manhattan – and saw the tragic events of that day unfold before his eyes. Like many of us, that experience made him pause to think about what was important to him. His rewarding experiences helping family and neighbors with immediate, personal needs led him to leave the corporate services fast track he was on, and to earn a degree in Public Affairs from the LBJ School at University of Texas. He also deepened his domain experience with several management roles in the Texas public sector.
One night Erine was lucky to be invited to a dinner with legendary Austin entrepreneur Gary Hoover at Fonda San Miguel, an equally legendary Austin restaurant serving fine Mexican cuisine. The topic of dinner conversation was Erine’s desire to start a non-profit organization to fill gaps in social services he’d seen while working with the state of Texas. Gary suggested that starting a for-profit business would be a smarter path, and keep him from competing for scarce resources with the nonprofit organizations who would be his likely customers. A little while later, Erine incorporated his vision as Aunt Bertha, a Delaware C Corporation and certified “B-Corp” - a new type of company that balances the drive for shareholder return with other stakeholders in the business.
Raising money for expansion has been the hardest thing for Erine about running Aunt Bertha – but it also taught him the benefits of self-reliance and never giving up. Erine didn’t know much about raising funds and this was his first startup. His early conversations with angel investors were a learning experience. Things turned a corner when Erine was accepted as one of 22 global social entrepreneurs for the Unreasonable Institute
accelerator in Boulder, Colorado in 2012. There Erine rubbed elbows with innovative entrepreneurs from multiple continents. The mentors at the Institute honed his ability to connect with angel investors on a more personal level. Erine came away from the program with $100,000 in much needed funding to expand his platform and hire key staff he needed to expand his paying customer base.
One thing Erine would do differently if given a do-over – he’d ask for collaboration with more people earlier. It can be lonely being a sole founder and he was reluctant to ask friends and colleagues for help when he didn't know yet if his idea would work as a business. He has since practiced asking hundreds of people for guidance, and it's paying off in the form of a bigger team, more sales, and additional investors.
We salute Erine for his can-do startup attitude and look forward to seeing him grill an entrepreneur with questions at a future Austin StartupGrind