Welcome to the world of billion-dollar startups, ex-missionary CEOs, and a big diversity problem
Eric Rea is wearing a dark-blue shirt buttoned to the neck, stretchy olive pants, black sneakers, and an Apple watch. With a mountain bike propped against his desk and crystal-blue eyes, the 34-year-old CEO of Lehi, Utah–based startup Podium is both physically fit and disarmingly gracious. He is also a Mormon who, between his freshman and sophomore years of college, went on a two-year mission to Madrid, Spain. Raised in Calgary, Alberta, Rea didn’t speak Spanish when he arrived, but that was the least of his problems. “Trying to get the Spaniards to sign up for Mormonism was a tough sell,” he says. “It turns out Catholicism is pretty strong there. You get a lot of rejection.”
Relentless rejection wasn’t exactly bad training for life as an aspiring entrepreneur. Neither was attending Brigham Young University. While many ambitious high schoolers might fantasize about getting into Stanford en route to crushing it in Silicon Valley, young Mormons all over the country have a different dream: to make it into BYU.
Dead last in party-school rankings, BYU expects students to adhere to a strict honor code that prohibits not just drinking and smoking but also things like camping with members of the opposite sex and growing a beard without a doctor’s approval. (It was also a Very Big Deal when, in 2017, the school started serving Coke on campus, citing an official church clarification of the Mormon caffeine “rule”: Okay in soda; not okay in coffee or tea.) But with strong academics, a heavily subsidized tuition, and a 98.7% Mormon population, the school is incredibly competitive.“Getting into BYU as a white Mormon, especially living in Utah, is really difficult,” says Aaron Skonnard, who graduated from there with a BS in computer science in 1996, and built online software training platform Pluralsight, now a public company with a market valuation of $2.5 billion.
BYU has long been a favorite hunting ground for recruiters from Wall Street banks, big tech, and the CIA, where Mormon candidates’ foreign-language skills and squeaky-clean lifestyle give them a leg up. The school is known for producing outsize business figures, from Clayton Christensen (Harvard professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma) to Stephen Covey (author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) to Bruce Bastian and Alan Ashton (founders of WordPerfect).
It was at BYU that Rea met Dennis Steele, a Mormon from the Bay Area who did his missionary service in Argentina. The two conspired to start a cloud computing company to provide social monitoring and text-based messaging to local businesses. In 2016, they were accepted into Y Combinator and moved to Mountain View, California, but after graduating from the accelerator, they decided to return to Utah, which offered both affordable real estate and has the youngest population in the country. “There were companies starting at about the same time as us, trying to solve pretty similar problems, who were based in San Francisco, and they’ve kind of all dried up, because I think they just couldn’t hire enough talented people competing with Uber and Google,” Rea says.
Now Podium is a Google Ventures–backed, 650-person company housed in a five-story, 175,000-square-foot space in Lehi. An identical building next door is currently under construction to accommodate the company’s growing workforce, which is expected to double in size. Podium is just one of at least a dozen fast-growing, early stage companies clustered in an area called Point of the Mountain, halfway between Salt Lake City and the BYU campus in Provo, that has become the epicenter of the “Silicon Slopes” tech boom. A decade ago, there was nothing but farmland and a state prison here; today, it’s a chaotic scene of road detours, industrial equipment, and cranes throwing up black-glass monoliths along I-15. Out-of-state giants like Adobe, Microsoft, and Amazon have established significant outposts here, and Utah is now producing more jobs than it can fill with in-state talent. In the first three quarters of 2019, companies here attracted $829 million in venture funding. According to data from CB Insights, in 2017 the number of unicorns in Utah put the state behind only California, Massachusetts, and New York.
Unsurprisingly, most of these companies are also headed by a young, white, Mormon guy. Most of these founders have gone through what amounts to perhaps the most strenuous sales “boot camp” in the world: a two-year mission spreading Mormonism abroad.
Many of these Utah startups share not only interchangeable logos and one-word names (Divvy, Pattern, Bamboo, Nuvi, Jolt, Canopy) but also meat-and-potatoes something-as-a-service platforms with a large addressable market of business customers. The hottest startups do cloud-based visual diagramming software, e-commerce solutions, communication software for medical offices, task management software for fast-food businesses, work management software for enterprise, and benefits management software. Unglamorous, rapidly scalable businesses that play into a theme investors affectionately refer to as “the consumerization of enterprise.”
Unsurprisingly, most of these companies are also headed by a young, white, Mormon guy. Utah is 88% white, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who self-describe as Mormon or LDS, make up 62% of Utah’s 3.2 million population. And Mormonism isn’t just a religion — it’s a way of life. Mormons are particularly devout: 83% of them say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% of the general U.S. population. Like Podium’s Rea and Steele, most of these founders have gone through what amounts to perhaps the most strenuous sales “boot camp” in the world: a two-year mission spreading Mormonism abroad. Each year, after a brief period of training, about 53,000 LDS missionaries, mostly young men, go out and proselytize for two years (18 months for women), often living far from home. (As a result, many Utah students take six years, rather than four, to get their bachelor’s degree.) Provo-based Vivint Smart Home, founded in 1999 and acquired by the Blackstone Group in 2012 for more than $2 billion, became one of the most successful door-to-door sales companies anywhere by hiring these returning missionaries to sell home security systems.
“Every single one of us can sell the crap out of anything,” says Blake Murray, the Mormon CEO and co-founder of Lehi-based Divvy, which launched its expense management software-as-service platform in January 2018. In April 2019, it raised a $200 million round led by NEA. “Before even a line of code was written, I had built a deck and signed massive corporate agreements with some of the largest banks in the U.S.,” says Murray, who served his two-year mission in Santiago, Chile. Instead of attending LDS flagship BYU, he enrolled at the University of Utah. “My way of sticking it to the man,” Murray says. (Not really: The University of Utah has produced just as many famous Mormon business figures as BYU, including J. Willard Marriott, Novell founder Ray Noorda, JetBlue founder David Neeleman, former Pixar president Ed Catmull, and Atari creator Nolan Bushnell, now a self-described lapsed Mormon.)
In the past, talent from Utah’s schools had to leave the state to find fame and fortune. Now, thanks to an influx of out-of-state capital and the trickle-down effect of several billion-dollar exits, more young Mormon entrepreneurs are deciding to stay right here. Skiers now have to compete with VCs for space on flights into Salt Lake City, where they can scout for a very particular retro brand of founder, combining the ambition of 2020 with the values of the 1950s — competitively groomed and vice-free, with tunnel vision on their business, their family, and the church. Matthew Marsh, a partner in Lehi-based Sorenson Venture Partners, says he spends much of his time these days showing around investors who are only too happy to make the 90-minute flight from the Bay Area, discover their next SaaS unicorn, and have dinner in Salt Lake City before heading home. “They see here what they had a while back — good, sound, fundamental business building,” he says. “You get a gritty entrepreneur who’s going to buckle down, with a sound path to profitability.”
But as the region now finds itself competing with cities like Austin and Denver to lure talent, companies, and expats from the coasts, it is still very much battling a perception problem. While business leaders have slickly rebranded the area surrounding Salt Lake City as the Silicon Slopes, to many outsiders, the Utah economy is still best known as a mecca for multilevel marketing (MLM) companies, lucrative bottom-feeding outfits that started taking off in the 1980s and capitalize on Mormon’s sales heritage and large pool of stay-at-home moms. Those businesses still persist; startups like Lehi-based beauty brand Younique are now rebranding MLM as “direct” or “collaborative” sales for millennials, and as of 2017, revenue from the nine top-earning Utah MLM companies reached more than $7.6 billion.
But if you think Silicon Valley has a white-bro problem, Utah will remind you what cultural homogeneity really looks like. Utah wants to keep growing, both inside the state and, as one local billionaire entrepreneur puts it, “at a global scale.” To get there, it’ll need to grapple with things like its culture’s antiquated attitude toward the role of women and the gay community, its absence of people of color, and the overwhelming cultural dominance of the Mormon faith. Otherwise, the very thing that is transforming Utah into the next tech mecca could be the very thing that ends up holding it back.
Everything in Utah leads back to the church. The state’s modern tech history can be traced to 1965, when David Evans, a Mormon, was recruited to start the computer science program at the University of Utah. Evans brought in top talent from around the country. In 1969, the school — along with UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, and UC Santa Barbara — became one of the original four nodes of internet predecessor ARPANET. A decade later, Mormons Bastian and Ashton invented WordPerfect, the first modern word processing program, and Ray Noorda — who held prestigious positions in the LDS church — started Novell, which made one of the first personal computer networking systems. In 1983, BYU grads Paul B. Allen and Dan Taggart founded Ancestry.com, built on the trove of genealogical records maintained by the Mormon church. (Today, its revenue exceeds $1 billion, and the company is also in the DNA game, competing with 23andMe.)
Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith — a Mormon with five kids — sold his survey and feedback software company to SAP in November 2018 for $8 billion, the largest sale of a private venture-backed tech company in history.
Second-wave companies like Omniture, the web analytics company founded in 1996 by BYU dropout Josh James, were literally built on the foundations of these companies. “Omniture was on the old WordPerfect campus in Orem,” James says. “I had this daily reminder: Don’t get your ass kicked by someone like Microsoft. And it was front and center in my head every day.”
James’ sale of Omniture to Adobe for $1.8 billion in 2009 was the catalyst for Utah’s current tech boom. After the acquisition, the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development offered Adobe $40 million in tax breaks over 20 years to encourage the San Jose, California–based company to expand in Utah, rather than take jobs out of state. In 2018, the state offered another $25.8 million in tax incentives to double the size of Adobe’s presence in Lehi, adding another 1,000 employees. James takes credit for setting off the big-ass glass-building boom around Lehi. “Before, you would just see all these boxes and no interesting companies, and we just put that sucker [the current Adobe building] right there on the I-15,” he says. “Now they’re everywhere.”
All this activity helped convince another Mormon BYU grad — Pluralsight’s Aaron Skonnard — and his non-Mormon co-founders to base themselves here in 2011. The move served them well. Pluralsight raised $310.5 million when it went public in May 2019, at a $2 billion valuation, and now has more than 1,000 employees. It joined the ranks of other recently minted unicorns run by Mormon men, including Domo, the data analytics company that James founded in 2010; CRM platform company Inside Sales, founded by Dave Elkington and most recently valued at $1.5 billion; and Qualtrics, a survey and feedback software company founded by Ryan Smith — a Mormon with five kids — and sold to SAP in November 2018 for $8 billion, the largest sale of a private venture-backed tech company in history.
Today, these four Mormon CEOs — who occasionally meet up at Utah Jazz basketball games or for a weekend at James’ cabin in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — are the reigning godfathers of the Salt Lake Valley, mentoring and funding the area’s next crop of founders. In 2016, they banded together to launch a boosterish nonprofit, which they dubbed Silicon Slopes — a reference to the slopes of the jagged Wasatch Range that dominates the landscape around Salt Lake City — to support in-state entrepreneurs and seduce outsiders. Their fingerprints are all over the fourth-wave companies along I-15: Podium and Divvy both got early funding from Smith, Skonnard, and James. The same three have also invested in Lucidchart, a maker of collaborative visual software based in South Jordan, Utah. James and Elkington were seed investors in Teem, a Salt Lake City–based provider of facilities management software that was acquired by WeWork for $100 million in 2018. In December 2019, all four gave $1 million each to launch the Silicon Slopes Computer Science Fund to advance K–12 computer science education in Utah.
Now there’s a similar ecosystem emerging for consumer startups. Jeremy Andrus, CEO of Salt Lake City–based Traeger Pellet Grills, with his three-day scruff, flat-brim cap, and black jeans, reads as more California surfer than Book of Mormon. He went to BYU for undergrad, got an MBA from Harvard, and worked in consulting and hospitality before being drawn back to Utah in 2005 to join Park City–based Skullcandy. In his eight years as president there, Andrus took the maker of colorful headphones from $1 million in revenue to a nearly $300 million public company. Since joining Traeger and relocating the company from Oregon to Utah in 2014, he has grown sales at the high-end grill maker from $100 million to $400 million.
Now Andrus is investing in and advising consumer startups, most of which are also run by Mormons. He and Skonnard both invested in Provo-based Chatbooks, a subscription photobook service founded in 2014 by Vanessa and Nate Quigley, a Mormon couple with seven kids. Andrus is an investor in Rags, a onesie maker started by Rachel Nilsson, a Mormon former stay-at-home mom; Owlet, a “smart sock” baby monitor company that has raised more than $57 million and was founded by five BYU grads who are now dads; and Cotopaxi, a Salt Lake City–based outdoor brand founded in 2014 by Davis Smith, who grew up in Latin America, where his father supervised construction projects for the Mormon church. “There are a lot of great consumer product companies [here] that are around $100 million in revenue,” Andrus says. “As these companies grow and people leave, they’ll start new businesses, and you’ll start to see the same kind of local growth effect that happened with tech.”
As for Mormons’ enterprising nature, many of the founders here point to Utah’s “pioneer spirit” as a key influence on its business culture. The first Mormons arrived here in 1847 after a 1,300-mile, 18-month journey from Illinois, where they were escaping religious persecution. (Here, Pioneer Day, on July 24, is bigger than the Fourth of July.) That “pioneer” attitude also translates to frugality and cautious business building. Explains Divvy co-founder Murray, “There’s a fiscal conservatism that’s just ingrained in many of us. You’re taught early to save money and to put it away for rainy days.” Mormons are expected to tithe, donating 10% of their income annually, and are encouraged to keep a year’s supply of food and other essentials on hand for emergencies. “Many of us run our businesses the same way,” Murray says. “From a fundraising perspective, we’ll wait until the terms are grossly in our favor. And then we’ll be responsible with the money. We’re not going to go into hyper-burn mode. That’s different from Silicon Valley, where there’s a mentality that there’s another round at every corner.”
The family unit defines work and social life here (especially since Mormons believe that families stay together for eternity). Six kids cost more than two, so the golden rule here is work hard and be home for dinner.
The one thing founders here won’t wait around for — and perhaps what most distinguishes this region from other startup hubs — is starting a large family. Many BYU grads are engaged by the time they leave school, and if they’re not, they are working on it. Utah has the highest percentage of married people in the United States. (In the past couple years, young unmarrieds have embraced the Mormon dating app Mutual as a more palatable alternative to the meat-market scene at the “single wards,” church-sanctioned meetups for unmarried young people.) Because church teachings encourage procreation and forbid abortion, it’s common for people in their thirties to have five or six children.
The family unit defines work and social life here (especially since Mormons believe families stay together for eternity). Six kids cost more than two, so the golden rule is work hard and be home for dinner. As much as Silicon Slopes startups might aim to look and feel like those in Silicon Valley — open-plan offices filled with scooters, hoverboards, and sneakered millennials wearing the corporate merch and playing pickleball between servings of “Mexican Day” quesadillas — they can also tend to feel like Disney versions of a “tech startup.” At Podium, instead of knocking back Friday beers with co-workers, you might blow off steam around the company soft-serve ice cream machine. (The Mormon health guide, called the Word of Wisdom, forbids alcohol, but there’s a cultural obsession with sweets. At popular regional chains Swig and Sodalicious, you can wash down frosted sugar cookies with an eye-popping, tooth-hurting array of 44-ounce “dirty sodas.”)
Perhaps the oddest perk, though, for anyone used to startup culture elsewhere: No one is going to look at you funny for leaving while it’s still light outside. “If I look out at the parking lot at 5 p.m, it’s probably 25% full,” says Podium’s Rea, a father of two young kids, with twins on the way. “That’s one of the big differences, I think, between the Bay Area and Utah,” he says. “I don’t want you to get divorced because you work at Podium.”
uring skiers, bikers, and rock climbers to work in Utah is rarely a problem. Convincing female professionals and people of color is a tougher sell. In 2017, when Salt Lake’s “godfathers” — Domo’s James, Qualtrics’ Smith, Pluralsight’s Skonnard, and Inside Sales’ Elkington — launched the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, their attempt at a South by Southwest trade show meets thought leader fest, there was a subtext to the event’s mission: “Getting people out to Utah helps remove the stigma,” Skonnard says. At the 2019 confab, which had 24,000 attendees, it’s no coincidence that along with speakers like the founders of Adobe and Pinterest, they invited Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, a fund investing in companies founded by women, LGBTQ, and people of color and arguably the most outspoken person pushing for equal representation in startups.
“The fact that this state is Mormon and mostly white sort of ends up being the biggest thing we have to counteract.”
Put more bluntly, Skonnard says, “The fact that this state is Mormon and mostly white sort of ends up being the biggest thing we have to counteract.” There’s no other state where a religious denomination is so dominant across the realms of culture, politics, and business. (Salt Lake County is the only place in the state where non-Mormons just barely outnumber LDS, and it’s only 75% white, making it slightly more diverse than Denver.) “I think the religious affiliation will always be a dominant element of what makes Utah successful,” Skonnard says. “But for Utah to be successful long term, at a global scale, we need to be able to attract more people from outside of Utah, from different walks of life.”
The first place they need to start is pretty basic: the role of women. The expectation that Mormon women stay home to care for (lots of) children contributes to the low representation of women in STEM fields here. Cydni Tetro, founder of digital experience company ForgeDX and head of the Women Tech Council, says she was one of only three women in her computer science class at BYU. A recent study by the YWCA of Utah and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women in Utah earn just 70% of what their male counterparts make—10% lower than the national average. At the 2019 Tech Summit, CEOs of the region’s largest companies took a step to address that by taking the Parity Pledge, a public commitment to interview and consider at least one qualified woman for every open board seat or role at the VP level and higher. (One of those companies, Ancestry.com, is the rare large Utah business headed by a woman — Margo Georgiadis, the non-Mormon ex-CEO of Mattel.)
The reality is that most successful women-founded businesses here are conceived of in the context of child-rearing, with products and services focused on kids and the home. Utah’s big families — the state has the nation’s largest average household size — and embracing of traditional gender roles are major factors keeping women out of the traditional workforce. Plus, “there are only spots in childcare for one-third of the children we have here,” says Allison Lew, an HR executive at Orem-based digital billboard company Blip and co-founder of Braid, a networking group for young professional women. “Even for executive women I know who can afford nannies, it’s difficult to find long-term care.”
But some of the benefits aimed at supporting women can also come across as paternalistic and even cringey. James, for example, touts Domo’s fertility benefit, which offers employees up to $40,000 to spend on IVF treatments.
Improving access to childcare is a priority for Utah’s fast-growing tech companies, which could mean that the region ends up having some of the more progressive childcare benefits in the country. Podium, for example, is building a new million-dollar childcare center run by the chain Bright Horizons. Qualtrics recently announced the launch of a 40,000-square-foot daycare center that will include three floors of technology-infused learning centers for children ages three months to five years. Utah companies have other famously family-friendly benefits, from generous family leave policies to “expectant mother” parking spots.
But some of the benefits aimed at supporting women can also come across as paternalistic and even cringey. James, for example, touts Domo’s fertility benefit, which offers employees up to $40,000 to spend on IVF treatments. “At the last company party this summer, five different people showed me their kids and told me they wouldn’t have this child if it wasn’t for Domo,” he says. Domo also gives out a $1,000 bonus on the birth of each child and a $2,000 “Haute Mama” stipend that pregnant employees can use toward a maternity wardrobe makeover. Well-intentioned, for sure, but a childless-by-choice interviewee might think twice about what they’re getting into.
The reality is that if you’re not part of mainstream Mormon culture, it’s easy to feel like an outsider here. Even a Mormon like Skonnard can recognize that. “To the Mormon population, the culture around church is like the back of their hand,” he says. “There are things that come with that culture — which I’m part of — like the alcohol laws, that the rest of the population will look at and say, why are we doing that?”
tah’s cultural conservatism manifests in a tendency to play down scandal of any sort — even when it’s making national news. Last year, one of the highest-profile non-Mormon business figures in Utah had practically the entire country watching him. On paper, Patrick Byrne should have been the last person to end up here. A Catholic Deadhead libertarian and the son of an insurance industry titan who was friends with Warren Buffet, Byrne earned a BA in Chinese studies from Dartmouth, a master’s in philosophy from Cambridge University, and a PhD in philosophy from Stanford. In 1999, Byrne discovered D2-Discounts Direct, a Utah-based company that liquidated excess inventory online, and purchased a majority stake. He then renamed it Overstock.com, eventually taking the company public, growing revenue to $1.8 billion, reaching profitability in 2009, and turning it into yet another Utah success story.
A decade later — last August — Byrne, literally frothing at the mouth on national TV at one point, confessed to a lengthy affair with convicted Russian agent Maria Butina. (He also claimed to have secretly assisted FBI investigations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, which the FBI denies.) After that, Byrne abruptly resigned from Overstock, left the country, and sold his shares, citing warnings that if he came back to the United States, the “Washington apparatus is going to grind me into dust.”
His business partner, Overstock chairman Jonathan Johnson — a Mormon who once ran for governor of Utah as a Republican — was left to pick up the pieces. After several years of profitability, Overstock’s retail business, hurt by Wayfair, was way down in 2018; in early 2019, the company laid off nearly 250 employees. It now faces at least two class-action suits from investors, and the stock, which surged briefly on Byrne’s departure, is down about 80% from its late-2018 peak.
Overstock is headquartered in Midvale, 12 miles from Salt Lake City, inside the Peace Coliseum, an impressive corporate building that, seen from above, looks like a glass-and-concrete peace sign. In a conference room in early October, Johnson — with a tight gray brush cut, blue blazer, slacks, and a white oxford shirt with monogrammed cuffs and open at the collar—has the too-calm air of a spacecraft captain who doesn’t want to tell the crew that the warp drive is shot and they’re hurtling toward a black hole.
Johnson spent nearly two decades working with Byrne, who was long prone to conspiracy theories, rants, and crusades. Over the years, Byrne had campaigned against illegal naked short-selling in the stock market, backed a lawsuit challenging Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage, and made Overstock the first major online retailer to accept bitcoin. So, playing the calming Mormon yin to Byrne’s raging yang was something Johnson, now the company’s CEO, has gotten pretty good at. Plus, Overstock had always been a bit of an outlier in Utah. “Companies either have a real Mormon vibe or a real not-Mormon vibe,” says Johnson, the oldest of eight sons, who has five sons of his own. “Overstock is not a Mormon company, and it’s not a not-Mormon company, and I think that’s part of what has attracted so many people here.”
Byrne is currently “off somewhere near Australia or Indonesia,” Johnson says. “We’ve texted a few times. I can call him, but he doesn’t want to meddle.” Within the company, Byrne’s deep-state meltdown, says Johnson, “was a shock. Twenty-year founder and CEO leaves with no notice. We have an earthquake.” As for the reaction in the larger community, he says, “I’ve had a lot of people come to me and say, boy, that was different.”
Different? Oddly, no one in Utah seems to have anything to say about the Overstock scandal. It’s almost as if it never even happened, a repressive undercurrent of the culture that doesn’t openly discuss, for example, things like having some of the highest suicide rates in the country. “Honestly, people don’t talk a lot about that [the Overstock scandal] here,” says Howard Hochhauser, the non-Mormon COO and CFO of Ancestry, which he joined in 2009 after spending most of his career in New York. “There’s not much gossip, period. I’ve never seen anyone take a potshot at another CEO.”
Though they may avoid gossip, business leaders here, even committed Mormons, are starting to push back at church orthodoxy and its hold on the prevailing culture. Omniture and Domo’s James, one of the more eccentric characters around town, has been the instigator in chief. Now one of the richest men in Utah, James is also a former child actor who had parts in the inspirational TV series Touched by an Angel. During a video chat from his office, he somewhat resembles a Cheers-era Kelsey Grammer, with swooped-back waves of hair and a fleece-collared vest. He’s on the board of Rakuten, Japan’s version of Amazon, nearly 20 years after doing his Mormon mission in Japan, where he first learned to speak Japanese.
James has played a backstage role in loosening Utah’s restrictive alcohol laws, and the drinks flow at Domopalooza, his company’s annual developer conference, because, he says, “We’re a global business, and our customers are expecting that. It’s really just across the board trying to make people feel comfortable.”
Few non-Mormon visitors from outside Utah, however, would appreciate James’ subtle ribbing of the church in his 2017 “Kolob Runs on Domo” billboard campaign. You’d have to be Mormon to get the Book of Abraham reference — or to be offended by it. (Translation: Domo was suggesting that Kolob — a heavenly body believed to play a role in the orderly workings of the universe — was being powered by enterprise software.) But as an inside joke writ large on I-15, aka the Morridor, as locals call it, it also served as a sort of cultural icebreaker. “We do live in a unique place,” James says. “If you act like it doesn’t exist, you’re not going to facilitate conversations. So, I’ll make fun of myself, and then it allows people to ask questions.”
Commenters in the ex-Mormon group on Reddit loved it, speculating that James — the father of seven girls and a boy — was “NOM” (a new-order Mormon, someone who follows Church law selectively), or even an “ex-MO,” citing, among other things, his divorce from his first wife after the Omniture sale. But when I bring up the Reddit posts, the garrulous CEO — arguably the most powerful business figure in Utah — gets momentarily ruffled. “I’m not a new-order Mormon,” he insists. “I’m just a Mormon. I go every week. I love it. It makes me happier. It makes me a better person. I don’t care what anyone else does.”
James’ April 2018 billboard campaign went even further, this time speaking to outsiders. Troubled by the high incidence of suicides and depression among LGBTQ youth in Utah, James this time confronted commuters with a simple but challenging message: “Domo ❤️ LGBTQ+ (and everyone else too!).” While Salt Lake City has a sizable and vocal gay population — and even a lesbian mayor — the politically and socially conservative LDS church, and the region at large, has been slow to evolve. It recently clarified that being gay wasn’t a sin as long as you didn’t engage in physical intimacy, and it recognized gay marriage — with the same caveat. The church also spent much of last fall fighting a Utah state ban on gay conversion therapy before ultimately caving.
While local media, unsurprisingly, reported only positive responses to the billboards, they triggered no shortage of closed-door debate. “Everyone on my senior management team reacted differently,” James says. “But after a 15-minute conversation, every single one of them ended up in the exact same spot, which is that this isn’t against anybody’s religious beliefs.” At his church on the Sunday after the billboards went up, a visiting church leader put it in perspective. “What better way to be greeted coming into Utah County,” he told James, “than by one of the strongest messages from Jesus Christ, which is love everyone?”
All Rights Reserved for Adam Bluestein