Sean Eldridge: Hudson Valley's rising advocate wields wealth for change

Sean Eldridge, 26, an entrepreneur and political activist

Sean Eldridge, 26, an entrepreneur and political activist who lives in Garrison with his husband, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, stands near the Hudson River in Peekskill. (Oct. 24, 2012) (Credit: Xavier MascareƱas)

As the Hudson Valley rebuilds after Hurricane Sandy in a nation where President Barack Obama was re-elected by the most socially diverse electorate ever, the name Sean Eldridge might start popping up in more conversations.

Until now, the low-key 26-year-old son of physicians has been best known as an advocate for same-sex marriage who tied the knot on June 30 with his longtime partner, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, 28. Their net worth is estimated at $600 million, according to Forbes magazine.

During the past year, Eldridge has been on a quiet mission to share that wealth in his own grassroots way. In addition to crisscrossing the region in his BMW sedan for meetings with Hudson Valley artisanal food entrepreneurs as a potential investor, he is also working the political circuit to spark change.

By early 2013, Eldridge hopes to get the state to reform its campaign finance laws and give individual voters more power by reining in big donors -- with the goal of reversing the discrimination faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"Advocacy for me is really fulfilling," he said recently over a cup of coffee at Table 9, a Peekskill restaurant that is one of his local favorites. "It sounds corny but I was raised Jewish and my mother always loved the phrase, 'tikun olam,' which is, 'make the world a better place.'"

Dapper in a black Hugo Boss suit, white shirt and grayish tie, Eldridge wore a platinum wedding band and a Cartier watch that was a gift from Hughes. While his reserved-yet-friendly manner was equally polished during a one-hour interview with Newsday, his hazel eyes warmed with enthusiasm as he talked about being a young, wealthy, gay activist who looks forward to someday raising a family of his own in the Hudson Valley.

"We hope to have kids," said Eldridge, whose parents divorced two years ago. "There are more than a million kids being raised in LGBT homes. What drives me is that the families are not being protected."

Last year, Eldridge and Hughes put down roots in the region. Moving out of their SoHo loft in Manhattan, which is now their second home, they settled into an 80-acre Garrison estate that they bought for a reported $5 million. The property includes a spacious home office staffed by one assistant who helps manage a team of relentlessly on-call consultants.

Eldridge quickly joined the boards of several organizations in 2011: the Poughkeepsie environmental group Scenic Hudson, which focuses on building parks around the state; Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic Fund, which serves the Lower Hudson Valley and Long Island; and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a Boston group that is leading the charge to overturn federal marriage discrimination under the Defense of Marriage Act.

HIS DOUGH HELPS BAKER RISE; OTHERS TASTE SUCCESS, TOO

In 2011, Eldridge also launched Hudson River Ventures, a for-profit investment company that recently closed on its first three deals in the region's billion-dollar food and beverage industry.

"There are a lot of cool trends that I think the Hudson Valley is uniquely positioned to take advantage of: the farm-to-table movement, the craft brewery movement, the small distillery movement. What I'm excited about is the intersection of tourism and food and beverage and agriculture," said Eldrige, who enthusiastically noted that he "loves food" but is "not a great cook."

With tightfisted banks making it hard for entrepreneurs to finance their projects, Eldridge hopes to fill the gap by offering a combination of loans and/or taking an equity in burgeoning ventures. "Even if you have a good idea, there aren't a lot of places to turn to," he explained.

His first deal, with the popular family-owned, Boiceville-based natural foods baker Bread Alone, was made public in September when U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer announced that the company secured a $4.8 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan. The money will cover building a state-of-the-art bakery and shop outside of Kingston, said Bread Alone spokesman Nels Leader, whose parents own the business. However, when the family still needed to buy new equipment, they turned to Eldridge's company for a $250,000 bridge loan that will allow them to expand distribution of their bread, which is sold in Whole Foods, Fairway, farmers markets and New York City's Greenmarkets.

Eldridge's firm also is providing a five-figure loan to Hudson Chocolates, a startup that plans to open a 2,300-square-foot handcrafted chocolate factory early next year in Poughkeepsie. The cash infusion will ease the pressure of launching the enterprise, said owner Francisco Migoya, a Culinary Institute of America professor who also is a cookbook author and former pastry chef at the renowned French Laundry restaurant in California.

"Originally, I was going to go out on a limb with my own cash, but now I don't have to do that," said a relieved Migoya.

In turn, Migoya hopes to bolster other Hudson Valley businesses by using their products -- everything from regional beers for his peat-smoked stout panache to farm produce. "The Hudson Valley has so much untapped potential," Migoya noted. "It's great that Sean is going to be an active part of that."

The owners of Chappaqua's venerable Crabtree's Kittle House, a fine-dining spot that will soon open its first offshoot, RiverMarket Bar & Kitchen, is delighted to be getting a financial boost from Hudson River Ventures. More than just a second restaurant, it will include a wine shop and gourmet market in a waterfront location that is part of the 25-acre, $200 million Hudson Harbor town house development under construction in Tarrytown.

Citing the need to respect his clients' privacy, Eldridge declined to detail the scope of his involvement.

More projects are on the horizon.

"In the aftermath of (Hurricane) Sandy, economic recovery and development is more urgent than ever and we will expedite our review process for businesses impacted by the storm," Eldridge said.

Before the deadly storm hit on Oct. 29, his company had received between 60 and 90 applications. Initial screening was done by the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corp., which invited Eldridge onto its board last March and remains "thrilled" to have him join their ranks, HVEDC Executive Director Mike Oates said.

"He has a great understanding of the needs of small-business owners," Oates wrote in an email to Newsday. "Sean's financial expertise and understanding of capital markets has been extremely valuable to companies seeking to grow their business."

In partnering with HVEDC to assist entrepreneurs, "the goal is to never really say 'no,'" Eldridge said. "Not all of them are going to be the right match for an investment, but there are still ways to offer help and advice."

PAC PACKS PUNCH IN MARRIAGE-EQUALITY FIGHT

On the political front, Eldridge has been expanding his reach. During the hectic week of his June wedding, he announced the formation of Protect Our Democracy, a nonprofit political action committee launched with a $250,000 contribution from the newlyweds. Eldridge helped raise an additional $100,000, which supported three LGBT-friendly state Senate candidates in the Nov. 6 elections.

Of the three, the PAC scored a clear victory in the re-election of incumbent Mark Grisanti, a Republican lawyer representing Buffalo and Niagara Falls. A recount is scheduled for a close race in the coveted 46th District, which covers five upstate counties, where challenger Cecilia Tkaczyk, a housing and foreclosure expert who spins wool in her spare time, seems to have a narrow lead.

In District 40, however, where the PAC was behind Democratic newcomer Justin Wagner of Croton-on-Hudson, Republican incumbent Greg Ball, R-Patterson, held onto his seat representing parts of Westchester, Dutchess and Putnam counties.

"We're far from done" with marriage equality, Eldridge asserted. Still pending is a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of same-sex unions; a decision is expected by next spring.

Meanwhile, Eldridge is focusing on getting passage of state campaign financing laws. His proposal is modeled after the structure of New York City legislation that raises money in "smaller chunks." Eldridge is hoping to see legislation passed during the state Senate's next session.

BUILDING A FUTURE AT HOME AND BEYOND

Politics and business aside, Eldridge is busy establishing a personal life in the region. He starts most mornings with a five-mile run, sometimes in the company of Lucy, a Rhodesian ridgeback that joined the family this year. The couple also enjoy hiking and would go to the movies more often if they could find the time.

Eldridge, who was raised in Toledo, Ohio, and said he only came out as gay after he left home for college, met Hughes in Cambridge, Mass., through a mutual friend. Soon afterward, he transferred to Brown University, where he majored in philosophy.

Hughes, meanwhile, dropped out of Harvard to become one of three co-founders of Facebook and the social networking powerhouse behind Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Last March, Hughes acquired a major stake in The New Republic magazine, where he is now the publisher and editor-in-chief.

As they pursue their separate missions and build a marriage, Eldridge said he is inspired by his 90-year-old maternal grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. "He still has so much energy and passion and love for his family," he said.

The challenge now is bringing some of that fire in shaping a world for his generation: "I think we should all be engaged in trying to make sure that we live in communities that are welcoming, that are nourishing and where young gay and lesbian Americans can have role models and have hope for a future that they can be excited about."

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