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
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…