leadership

The pain and joy of being a social entrepreneur

Women's Agenda /

I am the co-founder and CEO of a company built for social good to help more people overcome the distress of losing their hearing. The path has been joyous and tough. The rewards in helping people to hear again are joyous.  The tough path to get to this goal meant missing a lot of time with my four wonderful children, as they grew up.  

When I was a young child, my father started to lose his hearing. I didn’t recognise a problem; he was just my Dad. We often had to repeat things and my Mum talked in a fairly loud voice to him. That’s just how it was: I didn’t know anything else.

As I got older, I thought my father said odd things sometimes: he often didn’t get jokes, or worse, from a child’s perspective – he told really odd ones, even by the standards of “Dad jokes”.  In fact he soon headed to the top of the Embarrassing Dad Leader board. But by the time I was in my mid- teens, I realised the extent of his difficulties and struggles in his career as an ambitious and very bright engineer. I realised too that it was also tough for my mother. 

Hearing aids didn’t work very well back then – indeed, not until quite recently have we really made good progress.  My father survived professionally by a combination of using just a little bit of hearing, his eyes and his brain.  He must have had to concentrate very hard.

In the end he gave up his senior engineering job, and took up a rather solitary life chartering out boats, where he was locally known as “Saunders of the River”.

I was determined to have a career helping as many people as possible to hear better. I had no idea how I was going to do this, but I took my father’s advice and did a science degree. Later, armed with a background in science, audiology and biomedical engineering, I was a ready to make a difference.  

My journey has involved many projects along the way.  I started with humble beginnings as an assistant in a school for deaf children; I have lead a team that designed a new electrode for the bionic ear; I co-produced a play about one girl’s experience of losing her hearing in childhood; and I co-founded a company for a University that lead me to supplying smart hearing aid technology to hearing aid companies all round the world.  

I found I didn’t like the business models in the hearing aid industry, and the high prices charged to people with hearing loss.  My business partner and I knew we could deliver better hearing at a lower price. We thought we could do it better and more fairly.

Today, I ‘m a Social Entrepreneur: I co-own and lead a company that provides low price, leading edge, top of the range hearing aids to people all over the world.  Blamey Saunders hears supplies the supporting audiology services over the Internet, using a smart system that’s included with the hearing aids.

Being an entrepreneur in technology requires long working hours and persistence, a journey that I have loved. The downside has been the amount of time that I spent away from my four lovely children who are now in their early 20s – late nights with technology teams, long trips away. But my children are fine young people, and one even works for me.  

I don’t suffer the feelings of guilt that beset mothers at every opportunity. My children were safely and lovingly cared for. My husband took over the raising of our children, which was not common or easy 15 years ago; dads were not warmly welcomed at ballet competitions and I was criticised by schools for never being seen there.  I needed my family behind my vision, and they were and still are.

Hold on to your passion for what you do; in trying to do good, we are just a brick in the wall, but every brick helps.  There are many paths our journey may follow. One or many may be needed to get to our destination. Use a compass for direction, but don’t worry about the path.

Dr Elaine Saunders is an award-winning audiologist, businesswoman and social entrepreneur who has worked in hearing research and technology for forty years. She is Managing Director and Co-founder of Blamey Saunders, a company which supplies affordable, discrete and highly effective hearing aids through an innovative and industry disruptive telehealth service based in Melbourne. Elaine will be sharing her insights on disruption and innovation at the Creative Innovation 2015 Conference from 23-25 March at the Sofitel on Collins, Melbourne.

This story originally appeared on Women’s Agenda.

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