THE INNOVATORS

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com August 10 2011 3:00 AM ET

PETER THIEL AND INTRO TEXT X560 | ADVOCATE.COM
Peter Thiel
43 • San Francisco
Finance & Philanthropy

 Peter Thiel’s name should show up on any list of the nation’s top innovators. This is the man who cofounded PayPal and later sold it to eBay. He invested in Facebook early, even before it was worth billions. Thiel is famous — or, rather, infamous — for predicting a bubble would burst in the financial markets when no one else saw it coming and then doing it again with the housing market. What many want to know from Thiel is how he consistently stays ahead of the curve. But he can’t answer that question.

Unless he doesn’t want to let everyone in on his secret, Thiel truly cannot pick out the singular quality that’s made him rich. So he relies on the one thing he’s sure will make him original — being himself.

The founder of Clarium Capital, an investment management firm, this entrepreneurial oracle is catching a great deal of criticism for his recent endeavor. Thiel launched a scholarship program this year that paid 24 young people $100,000 each to skip or drop out of college and build a company instead. Some of the recipients, many of whom had jaw-droppingly high SAT scores, eschewed Ivy League schools such as Harvard or Princeton in order to give Thiel’s idea a try. The winners were announced in May, and the roster of ideas includes projects supporting new biofuels and electric cars, research that promotes longevity, and of course, innovative new Web-based businesses.

Thiel says that higher education for these folks would have been a waste — of time and money.

“I suspect that if the education bubble pops, it’s not quite the thing that is seen as valuable anymore,” foresees Thiel.

For promoting the idea that education could (perhaps should) be replaced in popular estimation with experience, Forbes columnist Peter Cohan called the “hard-partying investor” irresponsibly naive. Jacob Weisberg, the former editor of Slate, wrote that “tech prodigies sometimes grow up late. Perhaps Peter Thiel will one day as well.”

Thiel is coy about it all. He says the Thiel Fellowship program was not intended to be provocative. “I didn’t even think it would be controversial,” says the notorious contrarian, who practically gets paid to see things coming.

People were dumbfounded when Thiel asserted his libertarian viewpoint by publicly supporting Republican candidate Ron Paul in the 2008 presidential campaign. Later, when Thiel wrote an essay for a Cato Institute blog that said, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” the Internet responded with a rash of Thiel-can’t-help-himself critiques.

But when Thiel sat down with advisers at his foundation and brainstormed ways “to get more innovation going” because the United States is “too complacent about technology,” curiously, no one thought a college-dropout factory might garner some attention. After all, not every Thiel Fellow will be a success. Odds are that some of their companies will crater and give educators a chance to wag their collective fingers about the wisdom of skipping school.

“We think the people we’ve selected all have a chance at being quite successful and doing better than they would have done in college,” says Thiel, who holds a law degree from Stanford. While Thiel believes his group of wünderkinds is special — and that most high-schoolers should stick to their college plans — he says, “I also think it becomes dangerous when it becomes an absolute dogma and people don’t ask certain questions about why they are doing it and where they hope it goes. It’s worth thinking about a lot more, and I know I certainly did not do so."

One of Thiel’s rare failures came during his pivotal post-college years. He applied to be a clerk for the Supreme Court, even scoring two interviews. But he was passed over.

“At the time, this was really traumatic,” says the pragmatist. “If you never had a setback and you never made a mistake, that is probably in itself a really big mistake because that means you are taking no risk at all.”

While the recent recession sent the value of Clarium Capital’s portfolio dropping significantly from its peak, Thiel is always in demand. He’s shared insight with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on occasion, and even with gay business groups that invite him to speak, though the gay innovator admits he lacks any LGBT-specific advice.When it comes to business, he says, “you learn it by doing it. And if people have great ideas, they should do it whenever they have it. I don’t think there is anything about people having to be young or old.” Or, apparently, gay or straight. —Lucas Grindley

MARCY ADELMAN XLRG (ANNIE TRITT) | ADVOCATE.COMMarcy Adelman
64 • San Francisco
Elder Housing

Like a lot of her compatriots, Marcy Adelman moved to San Francisco in 1971 to live an openly lesbian life. “It was the epicenter of the gay rights movement,” she says. But as she went to political meetings or walked about the predominantly gay Castro neighborhood, she noticed a lack of older people. “I had grown up in an intergenerational family and couldn’t imagine a community that didn’t include seniors,” she says.

In 1973 she worked on the first National Institute of Mental Health study of lesbian and gay aging, and she later edited an anthology of life stories written by lesbian elders. Among them was an 85-year-old who was having trouble seeing, walking, and bathing. Since the woman had no family, Adelman and her friends stepped in to provide the care necessary to let her live independently in her own home until she died.

It didn’t take long for Adelman, who received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, to realize that LGBT seniors were invisible to the city's mainstream service providers, so in 1998 she and her late partner, Jeanette Gurevitch, founded what would become Openhouse, a nonprofit, community-based organization seeking to ensure that the LGBT elderly have access to affordable housing and any assistance they may require, delivered in a culturally sensitive manner.

“Research shows that today’s LGBT seniors are twice as likely as heterosexuals to live alone, four times less likely to have children, and 10 times less likely to have a caregiver,” she says. Other particular challenges to older LGBT people, Adelman learned, include a dearth of health care programs and nursing homes that welcome them, plus their own reluctance to seek services out of fear of discrimination.

In partnership with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing, and aided by a $50,000 Social Innovator Prize, Openhouse is developing 109 units of affordable housing in the city. Slated to be completed by 2016, the complex will offer studio and one-bedroom apartments for low income LGBT seniors, and it will provide both on-site services and a senior center.

Adelman is rightfully proud of her organization’s accomplishments. “Most importantly, LGBT seniors aren’t invisible anymore,” she says. “They now have a place to call that will refer them to the right LGBT-welcoming resources.” —Winston Gieseke
 AARON WALTON XLRG (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMAaron Walton
50 • Los Angeles
Marketing & Advertising

Aron Walton thrives on ingenuity. The renowned marketing genius behind Walton Isaacson made a name for himself pairing major pop culture figures with iconic brands, like Michael Jackson with Pepsi and Led Zeppelin with Cadillac, resulting in explosively popular campaigns. Now Walton, business partner Cory Isaacson, silent partner Magic Johnson, and their team of 80 brand professionals are showing major corporations how to reach underserved communities, including African-American and LGBT consumers.

When introducing a product, Walton doesn’t rely on the traditional marketing strategies of gigantic firms. Instead of employing, for example, a copywriter with specialty knowledge in niche areas, Walton Isaacson’s best copywriters work on every campaign aimed at all consumer groups, but with appropriately targeted messages.

“We tell clients, ‘Give us your biggest problem,’” he says. “We have people from different backgrounds and skill sets, and they are going to come up with something much stronger than going to one specific group that specializes in one thing.”

In the past few years, Walton Isaacson has worked with a variety of big-name brands from alcohol (Courvoisier and Avión) to household products (Whirlpool and Maytag). Whether intentional or not, there’s a lot of gay appeal in the firm’s work: His Dove Hair Care campaign, for example, featured Glee’s Lea Michele promoting Dove while singing The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things.”

The Lexus CT rollout, he said, was “great, because that was a campaign that was very inclusive.” It reached African-American, Hispanic, LGBT, and general markets — across TV, print, Web, and Lexus live lounge events that fused music, fashion, and culture.

Walton says when he and Cory Isaacson began devising their business plan, they didn’t mull over financials. “We decided on people. We knew that we were going to have to create an environment of culturally diverse people with varying skill sets. We believed that if we found the right people, they would feel more rewarded with the work.”

It cuts both ways. “This isn’t the type of work you do just because you want a job," he says. "You have to be exceptionally passionate about the business.” —Michelle Garcia JOAN ROUGHGARDEN XLRG (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMJoan Roughgarden
65 • Kapaa, Hawaii
Science & Education

It takes a brave woman to question the theories of Charles Darwin, but evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden isn’t afraid. Spurred in part by the stunning diversity of people she saw at an LGBT Pride parade in the ’90s, Roughgarden has spent years debunking Darwin. Her audacious attack became the groundbreaking tome Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, in which she argued that the variations in gender and sexuality found in many species suggests that Darwin was wrong about sexual selection and the gender binary.

“Darwin is beyond reproach in scientific circles,” says Roughgarden, a professor emerita at Stanford University. But it’s not possible to comprehend the diversity of sexuality without disowning him, she says, “because Darwin focused on sexuality solely in terms of fertilizations. Darwin’s emphasis on procreative mating rules out thinking of sexuality as serving social purposes. The social setting established through sexuality as well as other forms of physical and verbal intimacy lead to the production of offspring even if many particular acts do not directly produce offspring.”

Author of several critically acclaimed books, Roughgarden was often discounted because she’s transgender. “I did not expect the homophobic and disrespectful comments from professional biologists,” she admits.

The Harvard-trained Roughgarden, who taught at Stanford for nearly 40 years, didn’t come out as transgender until she was 52 years old. She says she was worried about the impact on her career, but “I was fully prepared to leave academia and wait on tables for a living if necessary. None other than Condoleezza Rice, then provost at Stanford, gave me permission to remain on the faculty.”

Does she think of herself as an innovator? “I don’t think about myself very much,” she admits, “except to say that I am determined to live my life as an idealist and to have faith that eventually, perhaps in another generation, the facts and ideas that I have placed on the table will be rationally engaged.”

While she and her husband (whom she wed last year) have retired and moved to Kapaa, Hawaii, the ideas of this 65-year-old scientific changemaker live on. “Today’s efforts to redefine sexual selection to sidestep all the contrary evidence against its original conceptualization may postpone the day of reckoning,” she says, “but that day will come nonetheless.” —Diane Anderson-Minshall JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS XLRG (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COMJose Antonio Vargas
30 • New York & San Francisco
Immigration

When 12-year-old Jose Antonio Vargas set off from the Philippines bound for California, he had no idea that two decades later he’d touch off a firestorm that stretched from The New York Times to D.C. to the border of nearly every Southern state. But that’s exactly what happened earlier this year when Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, came out in the Times Sunday magazine — not as gay (he did that when he was still in high school) but as an undocumented immigrant.

His mother had sent him to live with his grandparents, both naturalized U.S citizens, in order to give him a better life. His grandfather doctored Vargas's Social Security card, and the youth — who felt he had to earn his citizenship — began to rely on what he calls the “21st-century underground railroad.”

It wasn’t an easy journey. “The biggest irony here is,” says Vargas, “this is America, where you can dream as big as you want, right? And the laws are created in such a way they dampen the dreams, whatever those may be, and there’s just something incredibly tragic about it.”

Vargas is doing his part to keep the dreams alive with his new organization, Define American, which encourages a dialogue about immigrants and why they come to the U.S. And in doing so, he’s taking a cue from the gay rights movement.

“I actually think the immigrant rights community has a lot to learn from the LGBT rights community,” he says. The tipping point for the latter, he says, came via technology, especially in the wake of the passage of California’s anti-equality Proposition 8. “A lot of those rallies that were against [it] happened on Facebook and were organized on Facebook and organized on Twitter. Americans leveraging these new tools to tell a story are really going to be important for us.”

But he’s confident of a breakthrough. “We have to figure this out. Illegal immigration is not just about undocumented immigrants. Illegal immigration is about all of us. And if there’s one point that I want to drive home — there’s one point that I think elevates the conversation and takes it out of the immigration ghetto that it’s been in — I think it’s that.” —Diane Anderson-Minshall   KRISTINA JOHNSON XLRG (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMKristina Johnson
54 • Washington, D.C
Energy

It takes serious brains, a rainmaker’s résumé, and diehard passion to stand out among the luminaries at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Kristina M. Johnson, who left her post as undersecretary in the Department of Energy for the Obama administration in November, fits the description. Her excitement on trending green energy topics — biofuels or anaerobic composting, for instance — was palpable as she spoke to The Advocate upon returning from the annual event, which this summer drew the likes of former president Bill Clinton, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, and MIT economist and poverty expert Esther Duflo.

“If we can learn to communicate all of these positive advances, and learn from the best practices, our efforts are really going to be amplified,” Johnson says.

With the administration’s lofty goal of generating 80% of the country’s electricity through clean sources by 2035, private-sector innovation and funding are critical. And Johnson’s consulting firm, Enduring Energy, is helping to make that happen. Her primary focus is finding a way to significantly raise the nation’s hydroelectric output without building new dams.

Reflecting on her two-year political tenure, Johnson says she’s optimistic that Washington will be proactive on green issues for economic as well as environmental reasons. “Rational individuals elected to Congress will do the right thing, and what needs to be done is a cap on greenhouse emissions. The health care costs alone from a carbon-based economy are a third- to a half-trillion dollars each year,” she says, citing a study published in February by Paul Epstein, associate director of the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, on coal power’s disastrous public health consequences.

A former provost at Johns Hopkins University who holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University (as well as 45 patents), Johnson traces her green energy inspiration back to the inaugural Earth Day in 1970 — and an early eco-mentor.

“I had a great eighth-grade teacher who was really pro-environment and taught me a lot about recycling,” she recalls. “So I cleaned all the fields around our house. Pretty soon our entire basement was filled with aluminum cans.” —Andrew Harmon  NICOLA FORMICHETTI XLRG (TERRY TSIOLIS) | ADVOCATE.COMNicola Formichetti
34 • New York & Tokyo
Fashion

"I don’t know why I keep pushing, pushing.” Nicola Formichetti is in Japan and trying to figure out how to respond to a very upsetting profile article in W magazine in which he says he was misquoted about never again wanting to work with fat people.

Total fabrication, he says, horrified: “I’ve always looked for people who don’t look like models. I do work with fat people. You can quote me on that.”

It’s clear that he has a lot of energy and will likely bounce back from this setback in high style. Formichetti’s current slate of projects — a testament to that seemingly boundless energy — requires a bit of a list: he is creative director of Mugler (the design house previously known as Thierry Mugler — he changed the name); fashion director for avant-garde pop sensation Lady Gaga; fashion director at Vogue Hommes Japan, arguably now the most influential Japanese-language style manual in the world; and fashion director at chic international retail chain Uniqlo. But that barely scratches the surface of the volume of work he undertakes, consulting for brands and styling and directing dozens of photo shoots.

This is quite the heady résumé for a young man of Italian and Japanese heritage with no formal design training. It was working in a boutique to earn some cash that introduced Formichetti to fashion industry people and landed him a job as a style columnist for Dazed & Confused magazine. The rest of his career seems to have been propelled by a mix of sheer will and audacity.

But it is his collaboration with Lady Gaga that has made his innovative style — from populist to pretentious, exotic to absurd — into a worldwide phenomenon. The two became friends before she found international fame, and it was Gaga who urged him to take the top job for Mugler.

Hardly one to do the expected, Formichetti created a short film, Brothers of Arcadia, as a sort of moving inspiration board, a sensual Caligula- and Pasolini-inspired sketchbook for his Mugler men’s collection, the design house’s first. Porn site XTube is the only place that would take the full version, so he’s embraced the site and plans to direct a more explicit porn film as well.

“I didn’t know anything. I just did it — I had no fear,” he says about jumping feet first into fashion. “I’m just kind of naive.… I want the world to love me and my work, but it’s unreasonable.” —Matthew Breen  Sherri Murrell
43 • Portland, Ore.
Sports

Saying homophobia runs rampant among men in professional and college sports is like saying water is wet. What might actually be surprising to some is hearing that homophobia among female sports professionals is just as pervasive, at least according to Sherri Murrell, the head coach of the women's basketball team at Oregon’s Portland State University. Murrell is the only out NCAA Division I head basketball coach.

“Women’s sports has always been labeled as lesbian, and many try to combat that,” Murrell says. “Talking to some of my colleagues, it’s just one more factor they believe can keep them from being successful. But I’m the true story that it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Ever since Murrell arrived at PSU four years ago, she’s been straightforward about her wife (and now their 2-year-old twins) — and her career has skyrocketed. As a closeted woman, Murrell previously coached the women’s basketball team at Washington State University, but in five years she suffered through a 27-114 record. In 2007, Murrell resigned her position in Washington and, without a job, bought a house in her hometown of Portland. Serendipitously, the Portland State coach quit two months later and the Vikings’ athletic director called; he wanted to take a chance on Murrell.

Murrell says being out has made her a better coach, and the stats back that up. During her tenure, the Vikings have nabbed more overall and conference wins than they had in the five seasons prior. They now have a four-year record of 83-46. In the 2009-2010 season, Murrell brought the ladies to their first NCAA tournament, and this past season Murrell was named the Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year.

“I don’t have to preach integrity and say on the court, ‘Be true to yourself,’ and then shut the door and lie to them by concealing my life,” Murrell says. “I know the [gay] coaches who constantly think about the fact that they can’t bring their partner to an event or they can’t be in public with their partner. Well, I don’t have that — happy coach makes happy players.” —Neal Broverman