While the entrepreneurs I’ve met through the Unreasonable Institute have never failed to amaze me, there is something particularly amazing, I think, about Aunt Bertha. Its founder, Erine Gray, is a thoughtful, bright and energetic face for the organization. I have parents. I have older siblings. I have older friends. I’ve realized that what’s true for everyone else is true for me as well: As time passes, we are all aging. What if someone I know turns to me for help? What if I need help?
When Erine Gray was 26, he became his mother’s legal guardian. That’s because she, at the age of 47, was struck by a memory-depleting brain disease. “She was too young for a nursing home,” he recalls. “I wasn’t able to find the resources for someone in her situation so I had to learn a lot and learn quickly how social services work.” That led Gray on a journey. He went to the University of Texas, where he earned a graduate degree in public policy, which led to a position with the city of Austin that was followed by a consulting gig with the state of Texas. In that role he helped improve the way services are delivered in a variety of ways, including making it possible to check the status of applications via telephone. “One of the biggest lessons I learned while working for the state of Texas is that I wasn’t the only one with the problem I’d had,” he says. “Most people are simply not aware of all the services available from government agencies and nonprofits. Everyone has their own website, and since service providers usually aren’t tech people none of them are that great.”
Enter Aunt Bertha. “She picks up where Uncle Sam leaves off,” says Gray, who launched the site for the Austin area last summer and, with his five-member team, has since expanded it to the entire state of Texas. The name, he says, serves two purposes. First, he wanted to avoid the type of site that features pictures of poor children that make people feel as if they’re receiving charity; Aunt Bertha, by contrast, looks and feels like a trusted relative. And second, he wanted to honor the eccentric aunt’s of the world. “She’s tough, she’s a character, and she knows just about everything,” he says.
She’s about to know even more. This summer Gray attended the Unreasonable Institute, where the world’s most promising entrepreneurs live communally for six intensive weeks and focus on bringing innovative ideas to fruition. “There were 22 entrepreneurs this year who are working on social issues around the world,” he says. “From socializing to practicing for presentations and pitches to meeting potential mentors, in that environment I learned so much about how the world of business works. In six weeks, there wasn’t a dull moment.”
Gray learned a lot in the six weeks, of course, but the most important lesson, he says, is that being a successful entrepreneur is not the result of a secret handshake. “You look at successful people and think there must be some sort of secret, but really, you just need to be real and tell your story,” he says. “As a result of doing that, we’ve been introduced to so many people who are eager to help out in any way they can. I think success is an attitude based on two things: We’ve all faced the same struggles and we want to be around people who are genuine. So we show up every day, ready to create opportunities for serendipity.”
In a little over a year, Aunt Bertha has helped 15,000 people locate the services and/or organizations they need. Now, inspired in part by the fellowship at the Unreasonable Institute, Gray and his team are in expansion mode. They’re building in crowd sourcing and alerts capabilities in order to keep the site as current as possible. Organizations from other states are starting to appear in the listings. A social work graduate program in Tennessee is considering rolling it out in that state. Aunt Bertha is one of seven startups chosen to participate in Code for America, a San Francisco incubator described as a Peace Corps for geeks, so Gray spends one week per month in the Silicon Valley, where he says he’s absorbing even more ideas and inspiration. A mobile application is being developed. And the team recently moved into what Gray describes as a “great little location.”
Not surprisingly, Gray has definite goals for the future. “With the data we gather from people who visit the site, we can be better neighbors and we can be better philanthropists,” he says. Then, on a level that’s at once more universal and, in light of his experience helping his mother find the facility where she now lives comfortably, more personal, he offers this: “Our goal is to become the Wikipedia of social services.”