Photo illustration: Nicolas Ortega; Photography: David Walter Banks

How Mormons Built the Next Silicon Valley While No One Was Looking

Welcome to the world of billion-dollar startups, ex-missionary CEOs, and a big diversity problem

Podium co-founder and CEO Eric Rea (left) did his mission in Madrid, Spain before starting his cloud computing company; Blake Murray, CEO and co-founder of expense management software platform Divvy, was a missionary in Santiago, Chile.

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.

Skiers now have to compete with VCs for space on flights into Salt Lake City, where they’re flying in for the day, scouting for founders to invest in, and can make it back to the Bay Area in 90 minutes.

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.

The Salt Lake Temple is the center of the universe in Utah, where members of the politically and socially conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up 62 percent of the state’s 3.2 million population. Mormons have long been a quiet force in business, including the founders of WordPerfect, Novell, and JetBlue.

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.

Startups like Podium give off a Silicon Valley vibe, but Mormon trappings are all in the detail. Since alcohol is banned, there’s a cultural obsession with sweets, so instead of a kegerator, Podium has on-site soft-serve ice cream.

“The fact that this state is Mormon and mostly white sort of ends up being the biggest thing we have to counteract.”

“Silicon Slopes” godfathers and fellow Mormons Josh James (left)—who sold Omniture to Adobe for $1.8 billion and now runs Domo—and Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of Pluralsight, now valued at $2.5 billion, are trying to figure out how to lure non-Mormon entrepreneurs to the state.

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.

Inside Domo, which offers employees fertility benefits including up to $40,000 to spend on IVF treatments, 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.
Overstock CEO Jonathan Johnson, who took over the company late last year after his longtime non-Mormon business partner Patrick Byrne had a high profile scandal.
Inside Overstock, one of the few companies in the area that had long been run by a Mormon and non-Mormon team. “Companies either have a real Mormon vibe or a real not-Mormon vibe,” says CEO Johnson.

I write about business, science, and things that people do for fun. Work published in Fast Company, Inc., Men’s Journal, Proto, Marker. Vermonter by choice.