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?

Those were elements I wanted to see in the original Hornet product. We had this crazy idea that we could make a gay app 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 something very large like WHO and the UN.


And you are quite involved with the UN.

Yes, we work quite closely with them. I’m on a bunch of committees with UNAIDS. I’m on their MSM committee, I’m on a technical advisory with them, and more recently, I’m one of the founders of the UN Coalition for HIV Prevention.


Can you tell me about your background before launching Hornet?

I made a living as an analyst and I worked in finance, but I had also been an activist in many different ways. I was a community activist in Seattle, where 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.


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. One of them was Planet Out, which owned a property called was an online forum, it was a chatroom, it was very friendly and conversation-focused. That was a really meaningful experience in my gay youth and coming out. I used in college and would go online and make my first gay friends.


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. One was called Manhunt—it still exists, in a capacity—and another place was Craigslist. There essentially weren’t any other places. Then Grindr came about, but it was 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.


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.


We published a scientific paper on how online intervention works, for example, and we do that endlessly. We did that a hundred times today and we’ll do that a hundred times tomorrow. That’s why we’re working with the UN. 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.


Though Hornet’s activism isn’t just limited to health and HIV-related issues.

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.


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 cryptocurrency is just a good thing to use 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 the community. That is a much bigger vision. It puts voting and buying power together; having this token really 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 Kansas or Iran. 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.


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 they 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. People have no choice but to be on the wrong side of history in this issue if they don’t get on board. The one or two companies that don’t sign it will be the ones on the wrong side.


So even in places like Kenya, which has anti-gay laws where you can be imprisoned for 20 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. Hopefully the LGBT Token helps them and provides that 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. 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 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.


For more information about the LGBT Foundation and its mission, you can follow us on Twitter or visit our website.