Forty Under 40:Chris Hughes and Sean Eldridge
BY Ari Karpel
April 11 2011 4:00 AM ET
Check back to Advocate.com on Tuesday and Wednesday to see the other Forty Under 40 honorees.
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.”
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.”
Hughes had helped create a social networking site that changed the way everyday people interact worldwide, and he’d done his part to elect the leader of the free world. And with more than a 1% stake in Facebook, his net worth tracked at about $700 million, making the couple the wealthiest openly gay men in the world under 30.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that Hughes wasn’t sure what to do next. “When we started Facebook we were sophomores in college, so I never really went through that, ‘Oh, shit, I’m an adult, what am I going to do with my life?’ period,” he explains. “But I feel like I’m constantly thinking about what impact I can have on the world. I don’t think I’m that different than other people in their late 20s [who are] thinking about how to have a fulfilling life.” So Hughes embarked on a sort of listening tour, talking to the heads of nonprofit groups, with two goals in mind: to figure out where their money will do the most good and to cook up his next project.
Hughes often heard the same question: Outside of setting up a Facebook page or a Twitter stream, what can we do to make our Web presence more dynamic and interactive? His answer is Jumo.com, a Web platform that intends to be to nonprofits — everything from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to Engineers Without Borders — what Yelp is to restaurants and, frankly, what Facebook is to people. It standardizes the process of interacting with a cause. “We’re trying to [make it] really easy for an organization to tell their stories and for people to get to know their work over time.”
Like most new-media ventures, Jumo is a work in progress. “What we have out there now is very basic,” Hughes explains as he sits in a glass-enclosed conference room, the only private space in the site’s open-plan SoHo offices. “Our theory is build fast, release early, and don’t wait for it to be perfect.” So what you see today is not what the site will be in a few weeks or a few months. While Facebook users “like” things, Jumo users “care,” a tag that suits Hughes’s worldview about social media. Some commentators gripe that “slacktivism” is rampant online; take, for instance, masses of people changing their Facebook profile pictures to animated characters to fight child abuse. Hughes believes that such trends are more substantive than they seem. “So are they saying that if you tell a friend at lunch, ‘Hey, I care about global child abuse right now,’ that doesn’t matter? These arguments assume that following something is the end, not the beginning.” Change, Hughes asserts, begins with discourse. “People talk about what they care about, they share that with their friends, and when those movements are well-organized they can actually have real policy change.” It’s the legacy of Facebook in a nutshell.
Much as Jumo is a means for a host of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations to connect to volunteers and donors, Freedom to Marry is a fulcrum for the various state fronts in the battle for marriage—as well as a catalyst for the federal fight. “There are a lot of great projects out there that educate the public,” Eldridge says, “but we have to do a better job of connecting these different projects, different events, different marches to the strategy. These one-off moments aren’t enough.” Likewise, when nothing is happening on the issue in, say, Texas, Freedom to Marry is using social media to help interested Texans raise awareness and money for the coming battle in Maryland.
For the past year Eldridge has helped marriage-activism veteran Evan Wolfson transform the mostly behind-the-scenes organization into a cohesive, public-facing portal. Wolfson has been working on this issue since he argued for marriage equality in Hawaii in the 1990s, but he’s been astounded by what Eldridge has brought to the cause. “Sean’s youth and youthful sense of empowerment, which is an accomplishment of the gay rights movement, put him in place to believe he should have [marriage equality],” Wolfson says, “to not doubt that for a minute, to have the great confidence that we can make the case and win people over.”
Eldridge found inspiration in working on the Obama campaign. “His election wasn’t predetermined,” Eldridge says. “I think, similarly, our work on marriage, in the gay rights world, on a lot of progressive issues, is not predetermined — it depends on the work, the message, the people.”
Eldridge speaks in eloquent, complete sentences, but when I ask if he intends to go into politics it’s the only time in our couple of hours together that he falters a bit. “This is political work,” he says. Right, but what about running for political office? “Yeah, uh, we’ll see. I think these things are hard to predict.”
He bounces back when questioning turns to the president and how he’s handling the issue of marriage. “First of all, I think there’s a lot of work that our movement still needs to do, including changing more hearts and minds and [pushing for a] DOMA repeal bill. It’s not all on him; it’s on us as well. I was lucky to be there to watch him sign the bill when he ended military discrimination. That was exciting…. He says he’s on this journey, [but] I think he’s not moving quickly enough. I know that in his heart of hearts he has respect for us, he has respect for gay people. But he doesn’t get a free pass.”
Eldridge and Hughes are pretty serious guys. When they’re not hosting or going to fund-raisers, they spend most evenings at home reading an array of magazines (The New York Review of Books, The Economist) and books.
They’re on the same page about a lot of things: politics (“We support all the same people,” Hughes says), sex (“We’re monogamous, committed, dare I use the word ‘traditional,’” Eldridge says), children (“We’ll take our time, but we’ll get there,” Eldridge says), even exercise (they’re both runners). And both of them visibly wince at the term “power couple.” But true to his potential as a future politician, Eldridge has a thoughtful response. “I don’t think we’ve ever used that term for ourselves, but I must say having a partner who has similar intensity in his days, a passion for work in the same way, it makes a difference to come home at night and have an intellectual partner. If that’s what a ‘power couple’ is, then great.”
“Sean and I are in a really unique position,” Hughes says. “We’re young and we both want to have a serious impact on the world.” They’re modeling their giving on the work of Tim Gill and Jon Stryker, who, through their organizations — the Gill Foundation and Arcus Foundation, respectively — have fueled progressive causes with their philanthropy. Hughes and Eldridge aren’t limiting themselves to marriage equality or gay issues. There’s education, cultivating the humanities, international development, and, Hughes says, “creating a more economically just world. There’s just so much stuff we care about that I hope we can make change on as many of them as possible. I know it might sound crazy, but we both feel the clock ticking. There’s only so much time, and there’s so much stuff to do.”
But first, though, they have a wedding to plan.