Jared Polis: From Flowers and E-Cards to Congress

In our partnership with StartOut, we regularly invite the group to highlight an LGBT entrepreneur. Here’s a case for extending yourself beyond a single professional niche.

BY Adam Sandel

November 29 2013 7:00 AM ET

Congressman Jared Polis, left, attends the Newseum's 2013 Green Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., last January with his partner Marlon Reis, right, and the couple's two-year-old son, Caspian Julius. 

Jared Polis has the unique experience of excelling in the business sphere and the political area as an out and proud gay man. His passion for innovation in business, education, and leadership has taken him from entrepreneurship, to philanthropy, to the U.S. House of Representatives.

While still in his early 20s, the Colorado native and Princeton graduate founded the online greeting card company BlueMountainArts.com with his parents Steven Schutz and Susan Polis Schutz. Three years later, the he sold the company to Excite@Home for $780 million.

In 1998, Polis founded the online floral giant ProFlowers.com. The company expanded to become Provide Commerce, Inc., which was acquired by Liberty Media Corporation in 2006 for $477 million. 

Now in his third term representing Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives, Polis recently shared his thoughts on being an openly gay entrepreneur and politician.

"In the business world, the topic of sexual orientation doesn’t usually come up," he says. "The key to being an entrepreneur is taking real risk. Having the right idea is usually easy, but the execution of that idea, and building the right team to do it, is the challenge."

The seasonal nature of ProFlowers.com posed just such a challenge. 

"On our first Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, the demand was enormous. We did more business in two to three weeks than we did the rest of the year. So building a system to support that was our biggest obstacle."

In 2000, Polis turned his attention from business to social entrepreneurship, creating the Jared Polis Foundation, with a mission of "supporting educators, increasing access to technology, and strengthening our community."

Polis and his foundation not only sponsor the Teacher Recognition Awards, refurbish and donate more than 3,500 computers a year to schools and nonprofits, but Polis also founded two charter schools with multiple campuses across Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, as well as the New America College for at-risk students.

"In founding the schools, I became frustrated by the federal laws behind education, such as No Child Left Behind," Polis says. "So I decided to run for Congress to do something about it."

While many LGBT political hopefuls are concerned about being an openly gay candidate, Polis claims it was never a problem for him. After a six-year term on the Colorado Board of Education, he handily defeated opponents in 2008, 2010 and 2012 for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

"When you run for office, you’re happy if voters remember your name, let alone your sexual orientation," he says. "Some voters had concerns about my support of same-sex rights and marriage equality, but those would’ve been the same for a straight candidate." 

Polis says that the demands of being in Congress present the same challenges and strain on his relationships with his partner Marlon Reis and their two year-old son, Caspian, as they would for any Congressman. "It’s a very busy job with a lot of travel and work, and there’s not a lot of predictability," Polis explains. "I spend about half of my time in Colorado and half in D.C."  

In addition to championing causes from education to LGBT equality and immigration rights, Polis has brought his entrepreneurial expertise to Washington as well, founding the bipartisan Innovation and Entrepreneurship Caucus, and the National Startup Day Across America, aiming to get members of Congress, as well as state and local officials to learn about the impact of entrepreneurship by visiting visit startup companies.

"This country was built by entrepreneurs, who take a chance and go for it," he says. "And it’s always the execution that makes the difference." 

His advice to LGBT entrepreneurs is the same as it is for aspiring politicians: "Having an entrepreneurial and business background is great, because it keeps you in touch with the real world," Polis notes. "It helps you focus on job creation and growth. And it’s always important to give back to your community through public service."

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VentureOut is a monthly column profiling LGBT entrepreneurs. This series is a program of StartOut, the first national network of LGBT entrepreneurs here to help you accelerate your ideas. StartOut is a national nonprofit with a network 8,000 strong — and growing. Connect with your community and experience events in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Austin. Visit StartOut and sign up for the events newsletter, and discover how to accelerate your entrepreneurial goals. Learn more about how to join the LGBT startup network at StartOut.org.

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