An Interview With Hornet Co-Founder, Chairman & President Sean Howell
Part of the LGBT Foundation interview series
One of the best things about being part of the project team launching the LGBT Foundation and preparing for the LGBT Token Sale is the people involved. We’ve assembled an incredible team of advisors and project leaders passionate about our mission. We’ll be introducing you to that team in a series of interviews for LGBT Foundation. This week is Hornet co-founder Sean Howell, who is also the chairman and president of LGBT Foundation sponsor Hornet Networks.
As the chairman and president of Hornet, you handle the community and activism aspects of Hornet—unusual to see in a gay social app. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Building a healthy community online and off is core to the purpose of Hornet. Those were elements I wanted to see in the original Hornet product. We had this crazy idea that we could make a gay platform that could improve the lives of gay men and one of the first things we thought we could do is make a difference with HIV. In the original product design was a Know Your Status feature, which we’ve written quite a lot about. But we always thought that given the way that people use an app like Hornet, being in the app multiple times per day, there’s a lot of power in that. So we wanted to help register people to vote, for example. Those were the early ideas before we even started the company.
Later, that really evolved to working hand-in-hand with individual organizations all over the world, from super small organizations in, say, Pakistan or a hill town in Peru or Paraguay that worked on LGBT education to very large institutions like WHO and the UN.
And you are quite involved with the UN.
Yes, we work quite closely with them. I’m on several working groups with UNAIDS. I’m on their MSM committee, I’m on a technical advisory for the LGBTI Index at the World Bank and UNDP, and more recently, Hornet is one of the founding board members of the UN Coalition for HIV Prevention.
Can you tell me about your background before you launched Hornet?
I had always been an activists in many different ways, and I made a living as an analyst in finance. I was a community activist in Seattle, where I started Friends of Seattle, and I was an arts commissioner for the city. I started a different social network called the Young Professionals International Network, which is in something like 17 cities now and part of the World Affairs Council. I’d also worked on campaigns and LGBT causes and I was also on the board of PFLAG. So I always had this strong sense of the LGBTQ community as an activist and I think that still resonates with where we’re taking the company now.
And was your activism what prompted you to launch Hornet with Christof [Wittig, co-founder and CEO of Hornet]?
The activist part is definitely a personal part of why we started it—it was certainly my motivation in starting a company that believed it could make the community healthier. But the main reason we started the company was a little bit different. There had been several nice gay companies in the past. Online gay culture has evolved over the years, and during the early days of the internet, LGBT communities thrived in forums and chat rooms. One of them was Planet-Out, which ran an online forum that was a chatroom, very friendly and conversation-focused. That was a really meaningful experience in my gay youth and coming out. I used a gay chatroom in college and would go online and make my first gay friends while at a small Lutheran university.
Then I went off to Africa where I was doing economics research and came back. What had changed in the [digital gay community] space in that time was where people would meet online. These companies that I had liked had gone bankrupt and so the most popular things at the time were all hookup-focused places. There essentially weren’t any other places. Then mobile apps came about, but the first gay ones were only on iPhones. Even then people were embarrassed to be on it; they only had what we called “headless torsos” in their profiles; people only showed their stomachs and chests but not their faces. So we wanted something different and friendlier and that’s why we launched Hornet, which was designed more like Instagram than a mosaic of torsos without any profiles showcasing your interests and starting conversations.
In terms of activism, what have you accomplished with Hornet that you’re really proud of?
The Chechen story is certainly a headline-grabber, but in many ways, it’s one of the smaller things we’ve accomplished. On any given day, we run a hundred different programs with two hundred different HIV organizations all over the world. Addressing the HIV crisis in developing markets is where we often have the strongest presence, whether that’s Egypt or Russia or anywhere else. Gay men simply do not have access to education. There’s no same sex education in school. We did a study in Thailand, for example, around six core competencies in understanding what HIV is and how to protect yourself—I mean, really basic stuff. And most people couldn’t even answer two questions correctly. So we created some health outreach programs using some technology principles like Agile to evolve with the users and give them new information as their level and interests in knowing more about HIV increased.
We published a scientific paper on how online intervention works, for example, and we do that endlessly. We have strong partnerships with UCLA, John Hopkins, CDC, ECDC, MSMGF, all looking at ways of using Hornet and big data to improve the lives of gay men. We did that a hundred times today and we’ll do that a hundred times tomorrow. Hornet is such a large social network outside of the U.S. that many of our users live in places where they don’t have access to HIV education, prevention and treatment. In many of those countries it’s still illegal to be gay and that’s why we created the #decriminalizeLGBT initiative. That’s also why we’re working with the UN. In fact, my seat on the UN Coalition for HIV Prevention, there are only 50 members and 14 other members are actual heads of state. So I feel like we do this really well.
Hornet’s activism isn’t just limited to health and HIV-related issues though, correct?
Correct. We work on social justice issues all the time. We educate people on how to protect themselves and what their rights are; we launched a Know Your Rights campaign. It’s a year-long campaign focused on understanding laws of incarceration for being gay. There are still countries that have laws that allow them to arrest gay men for being gay. Those are all barriers that hold us back in the fight against HIV and we can’t pretend like we’re serious about combating HIV while these laws remain on the books because it really restricts people from getting tested and treated. We’re working with everything from private foundations and organizations to working with foreign ministries, such as those of France and Canada, to put pressure on governments, and we’re covering these issues of critical importance.
The reporting that we do around race is also internally focused on our own LGBT community. While we all experience discrimination of some kind, there is still a lot discrimination within our own community, and varying levels of it. That’s something we take very seriously and want to tackle in lots of ways. One, creating visibility for underrepresented parts of the community. Two, making sure our own team is empowered, making sure our customer service team is representative of the users of our app. And creating vignettes around these kinds of conversations, such as what it’s like to be an African-American in the gay community, what it’s like to be Asian, and specific issues they face whether it’s online or offline.
Mental health is also a big concern in the LGBT community. When you can’t express your full self, it damages your mental health—and this is true from Kansas to Iran. We cover this topic in our Hornet Stories, reporting on issues as specific as depression to body image and topics around race and inclusion. So we are also working with John Hopkins and UNAIDS on measuring happiness as well as ways to use our network to uplift and empower our community.
How is the LGBT Token cryptocurrency and the LGBT Foundation the next step in this evolution?
For starters, Hornet wanted to work with a cryptocurrency because a cryptocurrency offers a lot of utility from a business perspective. Second, we thought it was perhaps important for Hornet to have its own crypto; we have a lot of users and thought it would be fairly easy to do this.
But then we asked ourselves, what would create the most leverage for the LGBT community? And that wasn’t a Hornet-specific token. It was a cryptocurrency that everyone could use because it was community-owned. That was the greatest leverage we could give our LGBT family. That is a much bigger vision. It puts voting and buying power together; having this token gives us clout as a community, not just leverage with private businesses and brands, but also states and sovereignties. As this currency becomes important, it will be something we can deploy as political and economic leverage anywhere. It also gives a chance to reward good behavior of anyone from individual users to brands to states to airlines.
Lastly, it’s not safe to be LGBT in many places, whether that’s Sao Paolo or Jakarta. We [in the LGBTQ community] have some extra security concerns, so we should be using the best tools that are out there for it. I think Hornet can help the Foundation make both smart technology choices and security choices in order to launch the LGBT Token on the biggest scale.
We also need an organization helping and supporting all the NGOs to start thinking about the utility of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, and until the Foundation one didn’t exist. Blockchain and crypto both offer unique power and we should make sure the LGBT community won’t have this advancement used against us and we won’t be sitting on the sidelines, but that we maximize this opportunity to progress the LGBT agenda. Sometimes folks shy away from the word “agenda” or claim there is an LGBT agenda. And it’s true. We want full equality for everyone, not just LGBT, and to live in a world without stigma so we can be our true selves and have the same rights and access as everyone without discrimination.
How important is it that the board of the LGBT Foundation be entirely self-run and governed by the LGBTQ community?
I think there’s a unique twist there. One thing that’s very true is that the more marginalized a group, not just LGBT, but also racial or religious, the more we tend to have economic disempowerment, as well. I think there’s a way for us to leverage something that is, in many ways, capitalistic, and flip that power model so that we really give an economic might and voice to the most marginalized within the community. It’s normally concentrated in only a few groups in the LGBT community, and with the Foundation and LGBT Token, we can benefit the entire community and find a sense of solidarity together.
Do you think that aspect—the capitalistic one—will work outside of the United States?
Absolutely. Our colleague, Fabrice Houdart, is enrolling the largest companies in the entire world in a set of standards for LGBT employees and customers, through IHRB (Institute for Human Rights and Business). He was in Kenya last week and the largest companies in Kenya enrolled. Brands are showing leadership there; few are choosing to be on the wrong side of history by not getting on board.
So even in places like Kenya, which has anti-gay laws where you can be imprisoned for 14 years, you see businesses being the first movers. That isn’t to make light of the political and legal inequality that exists right now. But the point is that businesses can move first and that’s invaluable. Businesses can be allies with power. Hopefully the LGBT Token helps them and provides that additional justification that they need for the progressive work that they do.
How important is that identity protection layer with the LGBT Token cryptocurrency? Most of us who aren’t discriminated against for our sexuality or gender identity can’t quite grasp the importance of it.
In some countries it might be okay to have gay friends, in others, even having gay friends is dangerous in public, aside from getting into the laws that govern same-sex sexual relationships. Having an LGBT economic voice is oftentimes completely impossible there. There’s a unique opportunity here to leverage the Token to allow for things that just couldn’t exist otherwise, because we can do it while providing anonymity. Most change in the world happens not because there’s pressure from the United Nations but because of self-determination of local groups. We need to find additional ways for people in Uganda to create their political clout and to create their economic voice, and for them to do that safely so that they get there as quickly as possible.
We already have lots of known ways the Token can benefit the LGBT community. Yet, since it is for the community and we’re including numerous advisors, there will be many new innovations and uses that can only come from the local markets as they develop their own ideas about how to drive change with the Token — that excites me.