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Christian Tech Entrepreneurs Find Funds, Support Among The Faithful

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Christian tech entrepreneurs include the FaithStreet team: (from left) Glenn Ericksen, Sean Coughlin and Ryan Melogy.
Christian tech entrepreneurs include the FaithStreet team: (from left) Glenn Ericksen, Sean Coughlin and Ryan Melogy.

NEW YORK -- On a recent evening, a small group of tech entrepreneurs sat around a table in Manhattan's Flatiron District, swapping ideas on how to grow their startups.

Three men in their late 20s and early 30s announced they had signed up thousands of pastors to their startup, FaithStreet, which matches Christians and churches. An Episcopal priest wearing a white collar suggested ways they could refine their business model. And a young woman said she was frustrated with the designer for her mobile app, which helps people search for relevant Scripture verses.

After an hour, they bowed their heads, and a local church pastor led them in prayer, asking God for "fresh ideas of what you want to see happen with faith and technology."

The scene at the Faith and Tech meetup group is part of a small subculture of the tech world that supports Christian entrepreneurs. In contrast to the hard-partying, get-rich-fast lifestyle portrayed in a new Bravo reality show on Silicon Valley, these entrepreneurs and investors not only pray together, but also give financial support to faith-based startups and discuss how to build religious companies that are both financially successful and socially responsible.

The community includes Faith and Tech's monthly meetings for New York tech entrepreneurs, a Presbyterian church in the city that invests in new companies with Christian founders and a bicoastal accelerator program for Christian startups.

It's not unusual for tech innovators to be religious. The late Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, for example, was reportedly deeply interested in Eastern religions. Yet most techies, if they are spiritual, keep their beliefs to themselves. Entrepreneurs who talk about their faith in business meetings often get blank stares from investors, said Henry Kaestner, co-founder of the Internet phone provider Bandwidth.com.

"Most investors are trained to look for shareholder return and profits," Kaestner said. "When somebody says, 'I'm working for the glory of God,' it can be hard to get funding. Investors don't know what box to check."

So Christian entrepreneurs are finding like-minded investors who want to back startups with religious missions. Silicon Valley business owners have long used their social networks to make connections with investors.

"For Christians, what's the most important social network you have?" said Jan English-Lueck, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University. "It's your church."

In New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian Church has funded 20 startups over the past seven years as part of its annual small business competition. The church sees its investments as an outgrowth of its mission to serve the city, said Calvin Chin, director of entrepreneurship initiatives at Redeemer. To enter the competition, the business founder must be Christian -- a rule meant to ensure that each startup operates in line with church values, Chin said.

"The entrepreneur needs to be somebody who is aligned with our values and what we believe in," Chin said.

The church, which has about 6,000 members, picks three business winners each year. Some are for-profits. Others are nonprofits. Each receives $25,000 in seed money, which comes from affluent church members, Chin said. Redeemer has taken an equity stake in one startup, Hoppit, a search engine that suggests restaurants and bars with the appropriate atmosphere. But Chin said the church has yet to see any of its investments make big returns and is not looking to get rich.

Another startup Redeemer has funded is FaithStreet. The directory for Christians seeking churches now has 7,400 places of worship listed in 50 states and is searchable by location and denomination.

Sean Coughlin, co-founder of FaithStreet, said he and his two co-founders want to expand their listings to describe each church's beliefs, congregation size and style of music. Coughlin said the idea of FaithStreet grew out of the observation that less than half of churches have their own websites.

"We're super-focused on helping people find churches and helping churches build their congregations," he said. "There are millions of people who are trying to connect with a great Christian community and pastors who are trying to get the word out."

Coughlin also helps organize the monthly Faith and Tech meetup group, along with Ainsley O'Connell, who is working on the Scripture search app Bible Bridge. A recent meeting convened at General Assembly in Manhattan, an institute devoted to technology entrepreneurs.

At each Faith and Tech gathering, tech-savvy Christians share their knowledge on topics like search engine marketing, and entrepreneurs present their ideas and receive feedback. Pray the City, a social media platform for prayer requests, recently gave a demonstration.

"We're hoping to lead a movement of startups in the faith and tech [sector]," Coughlin said. "There haven't been a lot of tech startups in this space. It's important to create a network that supports each other."

Dave Blanchard is also hoping to build a faith-based movement in the tech world. Two years ago, Blanchard co-founded the startup accelerator program Praxis Labs, which supports entrepreneurs who are "compelled by their faith to advance the common good," according to the program's website. Applicants are asked, Do you affirm the Apostles' Creed?

Startups that enter the program are mostly nonprofits. Many are focused on helping refugee or low-income communities. Blanchard said Praxis Labs gives these entrepreneurs a place to talk about how their religious beliefs intersect with their businesses.

"We felt like a lot of people were motivated by their faith to become entrepreneurs, but there was no place for them to talk about how their faith should be expressed in their organizations," Blanchard said.

The program hosts entrepreneurs for four-day sessions three times a year in New York's Hudson Valley and Playa del Rey, Calif., near Los Angeles. A chaplain leads the entrepreneurs in a daily prayer and asks them questions like, "Will your board members be Christians?" "Will your employees pray together?" "Will you be honest with your investors?" Many discussions center on finding a balance between launching a business, and the long hours that requires, and maintaining a personal life.

At the end, the entrepreneurs present their plans at Q Conference, an annual gathering of church and cultural leaders, where the winning startups receive $100,000.

"These founders are pouring their lives into something," Blanchard said. "It's a very emotionally challenging process. The program is a reminder that we're still human beings who have spiritual lives, and we are more than just our products at the end of the day."

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