Michael Belkin - Connecting LGBT Youth
Michael Belkin first came out to a couple of friends, and to himself, in 2006 as a 19 year-old undergraduate at Cornell University. “On that day I was instantly part of this new community and movement,” he says. “I was going through all these questions, like ‘How do you meet other gay people?'”
Moving on to the Harvard MBA program in 2010, he was still looking for a way to help others face the challenges that he’d faced while coming out. “I wanted to start a company and I wanted to help the gay community,” he says. “Gay people have special needs from technology… we have a special need to meet and interact with others.”
Seeing that the gay dating space was pretty well covered, he set out to focus on the social needs of LGBT people, such as meeting new friends and interacting with them in a safe and honest way.
In 2014, Belkin and his team launched Distinc.tt, an app that the Wall Street Journal described as “Foursquare meets Facebook for the LGBT community.” Approved for users age 12 and up, Distinc.tt targets the needs of queer youth, providing the kind of support that Belkin wished he’d had when he came out.
Belkin worked on developing Distinc.tt throughout his years in the Harvard MBA program. After graduating in 2012, he secured funding from gay entrepreneur and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who encouraged him to return to the Bay Area because of its strong tech and LGBT communities.
“Jimmy Steindecker, one of our New York investors, knew about StartOut and he encouraged us to get involved,” he says. “Some of our investors became involved through StartOut, we made more connections within the LGBT community, and we got to know other company founders which helped us too.”
“Gay youth are now coming out in middle school and high school. They want to meet other gay people and explore that side of their new identity,” he says. “On Distinc.tt, they post things they could never express elsewhere. “We’re gaining tremendous traction with gay youth right now. We genuinely want this to be an LGBT app, so it’s great to see an almost equal proportion of men and women joining recently.”
Belkin’s company has also launched Ou.tt, a gay activity and nightlife app for the 20 to 40 year-old urban LGBT set. Ou.tt is currently focused on San Francisco in its beta stage, but the plan is to expand it to include other major cities soon.
Belkin admits that coming out to his family, when he came home to Palo Alto during a Thanksgiving break from college, wasn’t easy.
“Even the most accepting parents have to adjust the projected future they had in mind for their child. My parents didn’t know many gay people, so they had a lot of misconceptions,” he says. “But as I talked to them, and they read books on it, and got to know more gay people, it helped them to understand it better.”
Yet securing additional funding for a gay business presented Belkin and company with challenges from both straight and gay investors. “I might go to a straight investor who’d say, ‘I don’t know about this market, talk to a gay person.’ And it’s a cliché to assume that a gay VC will invest just because you have a gay company.”
“I met with a gay VC and after our meeting he said, ‘At first I approached the meeting with skepticism, but I was really impressed by your understanding of the business and the market.’ I want people to invest regardless of their sexuality, because it’s a great idea that just happens to be gay.”
Belkin’s personal goals and his business plan are one and the same. “We really do need to support each other. As a community, we have challenges and setbacks to overcome,” he says. “I think we need to step up a bit more and make it better for others.”
“Gay causes are very important to me, and supporting LGBT youth is personally gratifying,” he says. “It’s the idea of having this positive impact, along with the general excitement of building a start-up, that keeps me motivated every day.”