Forty Under 40:Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge
BY Ari Karpel
April 11 2011 4:00 AM ET
The praise isn’t just puffery. When sitting down with them — at their respective offices, and together one evening at their home — it’s clear that these loving partners are worthy role models for a future generation of entrepreneurs and philanthropists as well as gay people who dream of finding their perfect match and being able to legally wed. Individually, they’re impressive; together, they’re an even greater force. “We both want to have a serious impact on the world,” Hughes declares.
The couple met in 2005. Eldridge, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, had just finished a year at Deep Springs College, a highly selective — but little-known — all-male school in the high desert of California. After coming out at Deep Springs, Eldridge deferred his transfer to Brown to experience life a little — taking a job at a shipping company in Boston, where he asked a fellow Deep Springs alumnus to help him meet people.
First up: Hughes, who was starting his senior year at Harvard. A friendly brunch in Cambridge led to a more romantic dinner a few weeks later, and soon the two were a couple. “It was amazing to meet someone who thought about the world in the same way I did,” Hughes says, “so it didn’t take long for us to get very, very serious.”
Meanwhile, things with Facebook were getting pretty serious too. “I pretty quickly felt like I became part of the Facebook family,” Eldridge says. “Facebook was small in comparison to today. Little did we know, it was only the beginning.”
It’s a beginning that’s now legendary, thanks to The Social Network. Like many others involved in the creation of the site, Hughes says much of the film is just that: legend. “The point of a movie is to entertain, so they can take a simple story line and blow it up in a way that becomes a complete fiction, which is what they did.” If you watch the background of the dorm room scenes, you’ll spy a blond ringer for Hughes, played by Patrick Mapel. “I think the portrayals of the other guys were far from rosy, so I count myself lucky. I squeezed by.”
Even the frat-party atmosphere isn’t accurate, Hughes attests: “The movie makes it look a lot more exciting, a lot more. It has everything from crazy sex scenes to drugs, all kinds of stuff that just wasn’t present, I can tell you.” The portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as an out-for-himself operator is a fabrication, he says. “Mark is brilliant,” Hughes says. “He’s really smart, very driven, and also very kind. I also count him as one of my closest friends. We’ve had so many of the same experiences over the past seven or eight years, there’s a way we can relate to each other that isn’t always the case with other people.”
Eldridge has been at Hughes’s side most of that time too. As Hughes neared graduation, it was clear he would relocate to Palo Alto. It was also clear that Eldridge would join him, even though they’d been together for less than a year. “We’ve always made decisions together, from very early on, so I felt very much a part of that journey, even though it was not as much my journey as his,” Eldridge says. Of course, Hughes’s Facebook journey has become an odyssey for the entire world, or at least the 600 million people who “update,” “like,” and “friend” as if we had been doing it all our lives, but the couple’s experience at Facebook has shaped almost everything about their lives since.
Hughes’s role at Facebook wasn’t about writing code. A French literature major, he’s the guy who came up with popular features that helped make the site user-friendly. One of those features allowed political candidates to construct a version of a profile page, long before celebrities and companies had the fan pages that are so popular today. This caught the eye of the team supporting the freshman senator from Illinois, who was not yet a presidential candidate. Chris worked with them on honing the functionality to suit their needs. Eventually they came back to him, asking if he would lead the campaign’s online organizing. How could he say no? “He’s an incredible candidate, and it was a unique time in history,” says the Hickory, N.C., native, who moved to Illinois for the job.
Enrolled at Brown by that time, Eldridge started volunteering for Obama — and flying from Providence to Chicago every weekend. The long-distance arrangement wasn’t too taxing on the relationship, “but we weren’t working closely together,” Eldridge says. “Chris was in Chicago more and much deeper in the campaign than I was.”