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As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, David Bohnett -- founder of the GeoCities Web site, philanthropist and one of the latest in the string of supersize millionaires spawned by the Internet -- found himself staffing a gay crisis phone line. “In those days,” he says, “that‘s what gay activism was: You worked on a crisis line.” Admitting to be gay often brought on feelings of unbearable isolation and even thoughts of suicide, he remembers.
“You could identify with that desperate voice on the other end who felt like he was all alone,” Bohnett, 43, remembers. “By listening, you could help somebody.” He compares the sensation to “walking into a gay bar for the first time or attending a pride festival,” when he felt the connection, knowing “there are other people who are the same as I am.”
It was that same gift for interconnectedness that led Bohnett to create GeoCities in Santa Monica. Starting in 1994, GeoCities dedicated itself to providing members with the tools to build their own presence on the Web, search for others with similar interests and, then, mingle. Four short years later, the influential Media Matrix tracking service ranked GeoCities among the top three most trafficked sites on the Web. The company went public in August of 1998. Nine months later, Yahoo Inc. came calling. Some $4 billion later, the two companies merged, leaving Bohnett $350 million richer.
“I felt that giving people the chance to talk about who they are and what their thoughts and hopes and aspirations and experiences were -- just like the crisis line -- is a very empowering thing,” Bohnett says. Providing a free home page to everyone on his network was not only democratic, it was humanistic.
“Plenty of people said that GeoCities is all about personal publishing and has nothing to do with community,” Bohnett acknowledges. “But when someone creates a Web site about their interests and other people interact, that’s what community is all about. Community is a sense of shared interaction and participation.”
“A community site like GeoCities, integrated with a network site like Yahoo, provides users with a one-stop shop on the Web,” says Steve Harmon, founder and CEO of e-harmon.com, a top Internet investing firm. “It allows Yahoo to reach more people and drive its business and revenue ahead. For GeoCities, it gives its users an integrated Web experience that‘s convenient. It was a great deal for GeoCities investors.”
No kidding. GeoCities’ shares rocketed up 42 12, to 117 14 on news of the sale. Yahoo was up 31 78, to 367 34. (The company this week was trading at 218 34.)
Not bad for a self-described electronics geek from suburban Hinsdale, Illinois, west of Chicago. Bohnett grew up in a household that stressed the value of hard work and “particularly, good education,” he says. His father was in the wholesale fuel-oil business, and his mother was a preschool teacher and homemaker. Unfortunately, the Norman Rockwell setup didn‘t accommodate young David’s feelings of being different. “I never thought I was a good Little League player,” he remembers.
Always interested in things “electric, electronic or mechanical,” Bohnett combined his geekiness (taking apart watches, building radios) with entrepreneurial zeal (selling Amway products to his parents‘ friends). His alienation as a gay person created “an overlay of sensitivity” that ultimately served him well, Bohnett says.
“Growing up, being aware that you’re different, your senses are always attuned to how people are reacting to you,” he recalls. “That experience creates a lot of sensitivity.”
While studying business administration at USC, Bohnett came out to himself as a gay man -- “not a choice,” he says, but “a realization: ‘This is who I am.’” Like many gay men in the ‘70s, he put off the daunting task of sharing the realization with his parents. After receiving an MBA in finance from the University of Michigan, Bohnett started his career as with Arthur Andersen & Co., a worldwide accounting and consulting firm, but knew that, because he was gay, “It wasn’t going to be easy.” The heterosexual social expectations made it “tough to evolve and succeed,” he remembers. “I would have had to push down who I was, and that didn‘t seem right to me.”
Then Bohnett met L.A. Municipal Judge Rand Schrader, one of the first openly gay jurists in the U.S. As deputy city attorney under Burt Pines, Schrader previously had been the first openly gay attorney in any public law office. The two men fell in love, allowing Bohnett to leave the corporate world, come out to his family (which eventually accepted Schrader) and meld his business career with gay activism.
“The energy between them was obvious at every moment,” says activist-author Torie Osborn, who is currently executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation. “They did lots of entertaining. While David put on the china and Rand cooked, we engaged in passionate discussion about city politics, gay literature, AIDS activism, whatever. The food was great, the gossip was hot, and the political conversation was savvy.”
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