Forty Under 40:Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge
BY Ari Karpel
April 11 2011 4:00 AM ET
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Chris Hughes hadn’t planned to propose to Sean Eldridge on New Year’s Eve — it seemed like such a cliché. But, in the moment, it just felt right.
A storm had delayed their journey from New York City to Thailand by three days, one spent waiting in the airport before ever getting on a more than 20-hour flight. “We finally got there, it was a beautiful night, and we were relaxed,” Hughes says. So, as 2011 loomed, he got down on one knee at the Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai and proposed to his boyfriend of more than five years.
“I had two or three sentences I’d prepared. I think I got through one sentence, and I was like” — Hughes laughs as he mimics a squeal — “ ‘I love you so much!’ ”
“Chris had gone out of his way to hide the rings and make sure I didn’t know it was coming,” says Eldridge, who acknowledges that he was surprised. “For a couple of days, we were all smiles. Then we realized we have to plan a wedding.”
“It’s six weeks later,” Hughes says today, sitting in a leather chair in the library of the SoHo home he shares with Eldridge, “and we haven’t done anything yet. It’s embarrassing.”
For most people, there’s nothing embarrassing about a long engagement. But to overachievers like Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge, six weeks is an eternity.
Hughes was 19 and at Harvard on scholarship when he and three friends founded a student website called The Facebook. After graduation four years later, he moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to work on the site as it became a bona fide phenomenon. Then in 2007 he headed to Chicago, where he oversaw the social media efforts of then–long shot presidential candidate Barack Obama. Now 27, Hughes is no longer involved with Facebook, except as a user and a major shareholder who has also made a significant fortune off the site. (More on that later.) Late last year he launched his newest online venture, Jumo.com, a social networking hub aimed at connecting donors and volunteers to nonprofits around the world.
A graduate of Brown University, Eldridge, now 24, also campaigned for Obama, as part of the team that put together Students for Obama. In 2009 he enrolled in law school at Columbia University, where in December of that year, he watched on his laptop during a seminar as the New York senate — in a move that shocked even the most politically savvy — voted against extending marriage equality.
“Knowing Chris and I were going to be living in New York for the foreseeable future, it was personally frustrating [and] deeply disappointing,” he says today of the vote, which caused him to drop out of law school in order to fight full time for the right to marry.
Eldridge became communications director for the national group Freedom to Marry in early 2010 and was soon promoted to political director. He and Hughes are major financial donors to the group (they gave more than $100,000 in 2010), and Hughes is also a valued adviser.
The two are interested in effecting progressive change on a host of issues, but Eldridge and Hughes’s current focus is on marriage — which comes at a moment that fits rather well with their personal lives.
“We’re at this natural point in our relationship,” Eldridge says. They considered waiting to exchange vows until marriage is legal in New York, but now they say they hope the law catches up to them. “We certainly won’t shy away from talking to the governor and other elected officials about it and telling them our story and why we want to get married,” Eldridge says. “But at the end of the day it’s our wedding. It’s about us. It’s not purely a political thing.”
With the luxury of money, the force of passion, and the gift of wisdom beyond their years — not to mention considerable charm — Hughes and Eldridge are bound to be major forces in progressive politics. “As much as I welcome the money — who wouldn’t? — I have to say that really is not what I think of as their primary contribution,” says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. “The money is great. Their presence is even greater.”