Erine Gray of Aunt Bertha: “Perseverance”

I think that, oftentimes, heroism is built out of necessity. When a heroic action is needed, it’s likely the only thing that will get a person from where they are to where they want to be, or the only way to help a loved one. Heroism happens when there is no other option and doing […]

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I think that, oftentimes, heroism is built out of necessity. When a heroic action is needed, it’s likely the only thing that will get a person from where they are to where they want to be, or the only way to help a loved one. Heroism happens when there is no other option and doing the scary, hard thing is better than doing nothing at all.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erine Gray.

Erine is the Founder and CEO of Aunt Bertha, a Public Benefit Corporation in Austin, TX. Aunt Bertha is the leading search and referral platform in the US serving millions of users, most major health plans, hospital systems, foundations and tens of thousands of community based organizations (CBOs). He is a 2014 TED Fellow, an Unreasonable Institute Fellow and most importantly, an advocate for the underserved in the US. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Erine led the Aunt Bertha team’s response to increased need for emergency social services across the country.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in a small town called Olean, New York, just an hour south of Buffalo. I’ve been an entrepreneur since the beginning — I was 11 when I first started buying sports trading cards from my peers and reselling them for a profit, then in college I sold books door to door. I’ve also always had a close relationship with my family, so when my mom was diagnosed with encephalitis and left with permanent memory loss and brain damage when I was 17, it was hard to see my dad struggle to coordinate care for her. When I later became her permanent guardian and caring for her was my responsibility, I started putting my entrepreneurial ideas and thoughts together, relying on my situation and experience, and figured there had to be a better way to coordinate care — this was the inflection point that led to the creation of Aunt Bertha.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I like listening to audiobooks on my daily walks and really enjoyed The Wright Brothers by historian and author David McCullough. The story of Wilbur and Orville Wright — their approach to failure as well as the way they worked to correct mistakes instead of dwelling on them — is fascinating and inspiring. It reminded me how important it is to do things for the right reasons. The Wright brothers were driven not by money or fame, but instead by the desire to prove the possibility and opportunities of flight and help change the way humanity thought about travel.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One lesson I wish I’d learned earlier is that asking for help and collaboration, especially early on in a new venture, is a good thing to do. It was hard being a sole founder when I started Aunt Bertha and asking for help would’ve helped kick start that success sooner, even before I knew Aunt Bertha would be successful. It’s an interesting lesson to look back on given that Aunt Bertha was created so people have easy access to help and resources available in their communities. Now, I ask for help or guidance any time I need it. That’s one of the reasons why Aunt Bertha has been able to grow into the largest closed-loop social care referral network in the country and help more people. When people access help when they need it there’s greater opportunity overall.

As for a specific quote, I’ve always liked a saying by Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist, that reads “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It reminds me that change doesn’t come from the top down, but rather from individuals who care enough and are bold enough to make a change. We each have that power within us.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Aunt Bertha is the largest closed-loop social care referral network across the 50 states — this was true before the pandemic and we have continued to add resources and social care programs to our network throughout COVID-19. When the pandemic began, we knew almost immediately that certain life essentials, including food, housing, child and family issues, and access to healthcare, would become crucial as people experienced the economic fallout from layoffs, furloughs and lockdowns. With Aunt Bertha and findhelp.org, we want to be the first resource people turn to if they need to find care or any other social service, and since the need has only intensified during COVID-19, our platform has grown to meet that increased need.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I’ve been reading the Road to Character by David Brooks. There’s two people he writes about that have been on my mind. The first is Dorothy Day, who is a journalist, political activist, social worker and tireless advocate for the poor who started a magazine called The Catholic Worker.

The other hero I keep thinking about is Frances Perkins, who was the first female U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She witnessed the garment fire in NYC and watched people jump to their deaths and was moved to dedicate her life to safety for workers.

I’ve wondered whether or not they were considered heroes in their time. To me, they were heroes because they quietly produced and did the work and helped people. Being a hero to me goes hand in hand with consciously shunning recognition and quietly doing the work. Of course everyone wants to be recognized, but the ultimate recognition is the faith that it’ll make the impact. Part of what’s so heroic about heroes is that they don’t need the recognition, they’re focused on what they’re doing. In the social care space, I feel the heroes are the social workers. We get to interact with them and witness how much impact they’re making directly on 10, 15, 20 people a day. Their motivation and commitment to helping people in their most fragile moment without recognition in a job that doesn’t pay a lot meets the definition of a hero.

There’s this whole thing about unsung heroes, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about — what the purpose of a heroic figure is and what it means. Being a hero inherently had very little to do with the mythology of the hero, even though the purpose they serve is in inspiring others.

At Aunt Bertha we started Resolve Magazine, which our Stories team puts together. Resolve focuses on the stories of everyday heroes, social workers, volunteers and people in the community doing the work every day. The intention is to ‘sing’ the stories of everyday, unsung heroes, while inspiring people to do good for their own communities.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

This goes back to the function of heroes vs. what makes someone a hero — heroes are symbolic of what we should aspire to and the kind of selflessness and courage we can look up to. But heroes themselves aren’t made in their own legend, people do that after the fact.

So to your question about what makes a hero, I think there’s really just two things:

  1. Stepping up: Those who recognize wrong and choose to do something about it. The decision to give something up of yourself in pursuit of that. They risk security and have a lifelong commitment to their work. Frances Perkins is an example of this.
  2. Perseverance: Those who dedicate their life to a worthy cause. People who make the commitment to try to accomplish something big and have ’stick-to-it-ness’ in the face of roadblocks, like Dorothy Day. And on this last point, there’s an assumption that people who are doing great things are people who are confident about what they’re doing and know they’re doing the right thing, but that’s not necessarily the case. The difference is that they persisted.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I think that, oftentimes, heroism is built out of necessity. When a heroic action is needed, it’s likely the only thing that will get a person from where they are to where they want to be, or the only way to help a loved one. Heroism happens when there is no other option and doing the scary, hard thing is better than doing nothing at all.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

We at Aunt Bertha already worked in a space that addressed people’s needs — sometimes emergency, life-saving needs — so when COVID-19 began, we saw sharp increases in many searches for many essential social services like accessing food, money for rent and child welfare needs. We knew right away that the need across the country was only going to continue increasing and that it wouldn’t be met if things stayed the same. That’s why our team, from Data Operations folks to Customer Success managers and everyone in between, worked tirelessly — and heroically — to add more services, programs and Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) to our platform and make sure our customers and users had the resources they needed. I knew as soon as the pandemic’s magnitude became clear that we were on the frontline of the social care referral industry and needed to make sure we were doing all we could to get help into people’s hands.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

The heroes I think about daily are the social workers, volunteers and dedicated helpers who tirelessly make an impact in their communities.

In terms of public figures — in addition to Frances Perkins, I admire Craig Minowa, the lead singer of Cloud Cult. Minowa and Cloud Cult have done so much to inspire people who have suffered loss over the years and he does it in a way that speaks to that earnest kid inside all of us who are hoping for meaning in life.

I admire Robert Caro, the writer and biographer, for his scholarship and persistence. His dedication to a subject really moves me. He writes about another hero of mine, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ).

LBJ could move people toward the greater good. I know he’s far from perfect as a historical figure or as a heroic one, but when it comes to impact, his legacy has helped millions of people escape poverty and some of his policies are still helping the poor today. I also think that even if someone has flaws and makes mistakes sometimes, the impact of their work can still be heroic. People are flawed, which means heroes are also flawed.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

Aunt Bertha’s network insights offer data that highlights the biggest social care needs in the U.S. In March and April of 2020, we saw a dramatic increase for basic needs, especially in food searches. Terms like “emergency food” and “food delivery” spiked. After a few months, searches shifted toward more long-term needs like housing and utility bill assistance and continued trending steadily upward as 2020 went on. Programs to provide these needs are essential to keep people from falling through the cracks of the system. What frightens me most are the consequences of the pandemic — the ripple effects that this global health crisis, a rising unemployment rate and increased poverty will have on already vulnerable families and individuals. This concern is reflected in the number of people who used our platform last year — in 2020, 3.4 million users across the country searched for free and reduced social care programs on findhelp.org.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

The work that our team does gives me hope, truly! We are connecting millions of people searching for help with the services and programs they need, every day, all while protecting their privacy better than other organizations in this space. Our customers and partners are doing amazing things, and CBOs across our network are working tirelessly to combat the effects of the pandemic and serve those who have been affected. I know it’s a long process and it seems like there is a new need to address almost every day, but I believe if we keep trying to help as many people as possible, we’re making a difference.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I’m inspired by our team at Aunt Bertha. Our Data Operations team responded immediately and with a dedication to getting the information correct so that people who were recently unemployed could quickly find the right information. They were fast, relentless, found out what was open and what was closed, and worked overtime. Our team kept up with and updated all the information about what hospitals and resources were open and what they were offering. This speed to action and their dedication is inspiring.

I was also very inspired by the mutual aid movement that happened as a response to COVID. It showed the neighbor-helping-neighbor ethos, kindness and generosity that I’ve found heartening. It made me realize that though this time was difficult in so many ways, it also inspired many people to step up.

On the flipside, I continue to be disappointed by people who take advantage of the emergency situation and abuse Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for their gain. The CARES Act funding is meant to cover things people need like food and housing and our government worked very hard to get this money out quickly to help people survive.

Some companies are trying to convince public institutions to use this funding to pay for their technologies even though they may already be well-funded.. It’s troubling to see that even in this time, there’s those who’ll use this moment to take advantage of the disadvantaged.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

No, it didn’t. I’ve always thought that people are generally good and I think the COVID-19 crisis brought that goodness out in a lot of people.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

I hope we all remember that we’re all doing the best we can with what we have and that we’re all in this together. We’ve all had tough times and have needed a helping hand once in a while. I would like to see people continue to show a little more compassion and empathy for their neighbors, even during everyday struggles. We don’t always have to be going through a pandemic to show kindness to others, and this pandemic has in some cases brought out a kindness and solidarity among people that would be great to see continue.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We’re seeing common trends in how COVID-19 impacted already vulnerable communities or made previously secure communities vulnerable for the first time. Both pre- and post-onset of COVID-19, the top search term on findhelp.org was “help pay for housing”. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, other terms, such as “help pay for utilities”, have increased in a way that is disproportionate to how much they were searched pre-COVID-19. These searches are coming from young people, college students, elderly individuals, neighbors helping neighbors — people across the board. Everyone likely knows someone who has been impacted by the pandemic, and that’s why it’s up to each of us to decide to use our unique skill sets and interests to make a difference. That way, every issue gets addressed as best as it can be. Working on behalf of something or someone outside of yourself is a contribution to the greater good.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I hope we can play a part in bettering the lives of those who use our platform and that those who use Aunt Bertha and findhelp.org to find the services they need then recommend the platform to someone else who may need it — or maybe even be helped enough to one day provide a social care service themselves.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Yes, I wish I could speak with my grandfather who I never really got to know. I’m told we would have been two peas in a pod.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn here. Please also consider following Resolve Magazine, an Aunt Bertha publication featuring profiles of people and organizations working for positive change in their communities. You can follow the magazine online at https://resolvemagazine.org/ or on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or YouTube.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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