Aunt Bertha Is Bringing Social Services Into the 21st Century

 

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Erine Gray was 16 when his mother was diagnosed with a rare type of encephalitis. The neurological disease left her with permanent brain damage and memory loss, and Gray struggled to care for her. Making sure she took her medications, keeping up with the house, and other day-to-day tasks were a constant challenge. When he couldn’t be home, Gray sometimes hired a sitter to watch over his mom. Only later did he learn about a low-cost sitter service for disabled adults. “She would have qualified for it, but I just didn’t know,” he remembers. “Going through that experience made the social services gap really, really clear to me. It can be so tough to find help, whether you’re someone with a disability or a caretaker.”

Years later, Gray—who graduated from UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs in 2004—founded Aunt Bertha, a search tool designed to connect people with resources like the ones his family once needed. The first nationwide database of health and human services, it’s now been used by more than 207,000 people. From support groups to food banks, legal aid to temporary housing, the site lets users find help in all 43,000 U.S. zip codes. In Austin, perhaps not surprisingly in a city with a growing affordability crisis, the majority of searches are for help with housing. The site registered 9,630 searches for housing help in Austin last year.

Aunt Bertha sells an enterprise version of its software to social workers and health care companies, and these paying clients fund the free search for individuals. Last week, the six-year-old company announced it had raised $5 million in series B funding from the venture capital wing of Techstars, a startup accelerator. But Gray says it hasn’t been easy.

“We went two years with no revenue at all,” he says. “There was a point where I had $27 in my bank account. A lot of late nights, a lot of doubt.”

When he founded the company in 2010, Gray knew he was taking on a challenge of staggering proportions: digitizing all of the health and human services resources across the United States. He was surprised no one had ever done it before. “This has been accomplished in many other industries,” he says. “Look at Indeed.com. They’ve indexed all the world’s jobs. Why couldn’t we do that for health and human services?”

Partly, the challenge was logistical. Government agencies and nonprofits are notoriously slow-moving and bureaucratic. Gray learned this firsthand from 2006-10, when he worked for a company tasked with helping the Texas Health and Human Services Commission modernize the way people apply for aid such as food stamps. Previously, applicants had to visit offices in person, often waiting for hours before finding out whether they qualified for help. As the 2009 recession hit and the number of people needing aid grew, Gray’s team built call centers and an online application to streamline the process. “I’m really proud of that,” he says. “Not that long ago, a single mom would have to take a day off work to sit in an office before she could even apply. Now there’s more dignity.”

Getting funding was also an uphill battle. Gray chose to certify Aunt Bertha as a B Corporation, a designation for businesses focused on making both a social impact and a profit. B Corporations are trendy these days—from Patagonia to Etsy, there are now 1,550 of them in 42 countries—but nevertheless, most of the investors Gray pitched didn’t believe that a social services startup could be profitable. “One investor actually laughed in my face,” he remembers.

His timing was good, however. Both the 2009 recession and the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act have prompted health care providers and insurance companies to try new strategies to keep costs down. One of these has been to hire more social workers. “It turns out that a lot of health care costs can be reduced with just a little bit of case management,” Gray says. “For example, a social worker might see that someone has an upcoming appointment and call to ask if they need a ride. Insurance companies are getting it now, and it’s a win-win for better care and lower costs.”

Aunt Bertha now has 20 employees—including fellow Longhorns Stu Scruggs, MPaff ’04; Margo Johnson, MSW ’15; Hugo Martinez, BS ’12, and David Guzman, BS ’10—and is hiring three more at its modest office in North Austin. Wrangling data is still a constant challenge, Gray says, since social services offerings are always changing.

“It’s wading through quicksand about 95 percent of the time,” he says. “But then there are things that make it incredibly rewarding.” One night not long ago, Gray was working late and took a break to glance at the site’s visitor metrics. “I saw a search come in from a motel in Round Rock,” he says, “and it hit me: someone just got evicted, and they came to us for help. Moments like that make it all worth it.”

Erine Gray, right, with Stu Scruggs, Aunt Bertha’s chief information officer.

Photo courtesy Coalition for Queens

 

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