Entrepreneur and Philanthropist: An Interview with Jared Polis

You can be forgiven for thinking that Jared Polis’s actual first name is “entrepreneur and philanthropist.” Most stories published about him focus on his business and charitable accomplishments, which are indeed remarkable.

When you ask the recently announced candidate for the 2nd congressional district Democratic nomination to talk about himself, that’s what he brings up first — business.

My parents came to Boulder in 1970. They were active in the antiwar movement, part of the hippie-era at its height in Boulder, which certainly has a strong legacy today. My father has a Ph.D.. in physics, and he came here to work for the predecessor to  NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

My mother was a schoolteacher in New Jersey. She did freelance journalism here. They also had a passion for writing and art. My father is an artist, my mother is a writer. They started as a hobby silkscreening my mother’s poems onto posters, with my father’s art work that he would use an airbrush to make.

This initial dabbling became Blue Mountain Arts, a Boulder-based family business that is still going today.

The family spent part of each year in San Diego, where Polis got most of his primary education, then moved he on to Princeton University, getting a B.A. in political science.

I’ve always been a serial entrepreneur. I’ve started many businesses and many non-profits. My first business, while I was till in high school,  I actually traded scrap metal. I would recycle scrap metal from the federal government and sell it to steel mills. I was a middle man and arranged for transportation.

I participated in sealed bid auctions with the government as a 16-year-old. That’s sort of what I did when I was a kid.

Polis started his first company when was nineteen with two friends, a 1993 internet service provider. The attraction was that the startup required little initial investment. He sold that business in 1998.

Then came the dot com era, which I would say was 1997 to 2000. I worked the hardest that I’d worked in my life — up until what I expect to work for the next year — I was on a plane almost every week, running what became at its height the sixth most popular website in the world, which was Bluemountain.com, which was a spinoff of our family publishing company.

In 1998, he founded Proflowers.com, which became the third largest florist in the country. He sold that business in 2006. The actual extent of Polis’s wealth is something of a mystery. Fortune magazine put it at $147 million in 2003, but that was before the Proflowers sale.

In any case, Polis is now poised to use his money to support his political interests. He spent $1.2 million to win a seat on the Colorado Board of Education in 2000, a race he won by a margin of 92 votes out of 1.6 million cast. Mark Udall spent only $932,000 on his 2006 congressional race.

Polis’s other first name is “philanthropist.” He’s spread his money liberally to Colorado causes. His Jared Polis Foundation has sponsored two charter schools for poor and immigrant children. His foundation supports awards for outstanding teachers.  He’s also a major financial supporter of Leaders Challenge, an organization that develops high school students awareness of public service in the community, that service is a reward in itself. (Full disclosure: My son, a junior in high school, was a participant in the Leaders Challenge program over the past school year.)

He played a large role in the Referendum C passage in 2004. He underwrote passage of Amendment 41, limiting gifts to public officials.

Both by experience and inclination, Polis’s main expertise going into the race is education. He has substantive criticisms of the No Child Left Behind initiatives of the Bush administration.

No Child Left Behind features high-stakes testing in math, reading and writing. While I don’t have a problem with testing in general, the federal government’s policies have frequently sacrificed other important content areas in our public schools, like the arts, social studies and history. It also focuses the curriculum more narrowly around test-taking skills and test preparation.

In addition, the way that government looks at the test results is so superficial that it simply results in the penalization of schools that serve at-risk communities in poorer socioeconomic areas, and patting on the back schools that serve students that already have many of the opportunities and privileges by nature of their birth.

What the federal government should do is lend a hand up, insuring that even the most at-risk Americans are touched by opportunity and hope.

We need different kinds of schools to serve different children. I don’t think a one-size-fits-all educational system can best serve our youth.

TOMORROW: Polis talks about Iraq, health care, about possibly becoming the first openly gay congressman from Colorado, and other issues facing the district.