Alexis Ohanian Invests in Startups and Speaks Out for Better ‘Business Dads’
By Dave Hendrick
One of the University of Virginia’s highest profile alumni entrepreneurs returned to Grounds 17 April to share stories of venture creation, funding new startups and balancing life as a busy dad.
Speaking to a packed house at UVA’s Darden School of Business as part of The New York Times-sponsored Get With The Times event, Reddit Co-founder and Initialized Capital Managing Partner Alexis Ohanian expressed delight at the large, enthusiastic audience.
“This is exciting. Y’all came out for this!” Ohanian said. “You must have really had nothing else to do tonight.”
Students and University community members filled Darden’s Abbott Auditorium and an overflow room, while the Q&A with Times reporter Sapna Maheshwari was also livestreamed around the world and at watch parties hosted by the Times on college campuses across the country.
Asked to recount his time at UVA, Ohanian, who graduated in 2005 with degrees from both the McIntire School of Commerce and the College of Arts and Science, said he was a diligent student, potentially to a fault. He spent a lot of time in Alderman Library — where he famously registered the domain name for Reddit — and worried “way too much” about grades, he said.
In hindsight, he should have given himself the license to experiment with different classes. He also joked that he would erase his “awkward chin beard.”
A Career ‘Aha’ at Waffle House
Ohanian, who said he had designs on a pre-med education “for a week,” until a first year science course disabused him of the notion, described his entrepreneurial epiphany as coming while taking the LSATs. He walked out midway through the test and went to a Waffle House.
“It changed my life because I realized if I like waffles more than the law, I probably shouldn’t be a lawyer,” Ohanian said.
Instead, Ohanian committed himself to entrepreneurship. Noting the privilege he had to attend UVA without taking on any student loan debt, Ohanian said the stakes for failure in a startup felt relatively low.
“I could see myself going into a meeting with my future employer and having my future boss ask me, ‘What did you do the last two years?’” Ohanian said. “And I could say, ‘I started a company, I failed miserably, but I learned these things,’ and I would hope that she would say, ‘Alright, that’s cool. That’s great. That’s a good use of your time.’”
After a short-lived attempt at a mobile food ordering business, Ohanian and his co-founder, UVA alumnus Steve Huffman, launched Reddit, the hugely popular collection of commenting forums known as “the front page of the internet.”
Ohanian and Huffman sold Reddit to Condé Nast roughly a year after its founding. After helping to execute a turnaround of the company in recent years, Ohanian stepped away from Reddit’s daily activities in 2018 but remains on its board.
Today, Ohanian focuses his professional responsibilities with Initialized Capital, a San Francisco-based early stage venture capital firm with $500 million under management. Ohanian said the firm strives to offer the earliest possible funding rounds for startups. Notable investments have included Instacart, Coinbase and Patreon, among roughly 200 others.
“The really big ideas are the ones, especially at that stage when they are still so nascent, that seem to really push up on the boundaries of what feels normal,” said Ohanian. “Everything is a remix. There are very few things that are truly original, but it’s the original application and allocation of resources that makes the novel idea.”
Ohanian’s Advice for Entrepreneurs and Innovators
In addition to a great idea, Ohanian said “the most important quality” for young entrepreneurs is the ability to deal with adversity. Many founders are brilliant but when confronted with failure — a regular occurrence in the startup world — they crumple.
A successful founder knows or quickly learns resiliency in the face of adversity, he said.
While Ohanian encourages everyone to learn to code, he said the lessons from his liberal arts background — specifically the ability to synthesize disparate sources of information and communicate an idea effectively — remain the bedrock of his professional responsibilities.
“As much as I advocate for learning to code … that does not mean excluding a lot of the things in the humanities that make us well-rounded,” Ohanian said. “If your goal in some way, shape or form is to change the world, however you see that happening, being able to communicate effectively has to be some part of that and being able to understand complex ideas and do the things that a humanities education can do for you is core to that.”
On a Mission for Dads and Work Quality of Life
Ohanian also detailed his efforts to inject a dose of humanity, humility and self-care into a startup culture that often seems to glorify the “hustle” above all else.
The finance industry may have laid a historical template for dogged hours and forgoing personal time, but the tech industry “weaponized” it, he said.
“There’s a huge mental component to being successful … so why are we not talking more about mental health? Why are we not talking more about therapy?” said Ohanian. “It is changing, but there is a toxic culture of self-sacrifice and then posting about it on Instagram, and it’s absurd.”
Hard work is a critical component of success, he said, but the best thinkers and creators rely on rest as much as work.
Ohanian said one way he tries to model balanced behavior is advocating for paid parental leave and by prioritizing time with his family. When his wife, tennis superstar Serena Williams, gave birth to their daughter, Ohanian said he took 16 weeks off and encourages others to do at least the same. It’s critical for the health of a child and a family, he said.
While executives who are mothers are routinely asked about balancing work and family, men are asked the same question far less often, Ohanian said.
“I’m really starting to get asked this question more and more, and please, ask me all day long,” Ohanian said. “Why shouldn’t a business dad be asked these questions?”
Ohanian Event Makes a Splash on Social Media
Darden alumna Meg (Greenhalgh) Pryde (MBA ’18), the founder of i.Lab Incubator-supported startup Brandefy who attended the Get With The Times event, took a shot at pitching Ohanian both in person and via Twitter. And Ohianian responded with permission to pitch!
We’re poised to take advantage of the $100B shift in the grocery market from brick and mortar to online. (And did you know amazon is going to to $25B in private label sales by 2022?) ps. Carolyn & I don’t test products. We’ve figured out how to do it scaleably.) pic.twitter.com/4CDmZcBgh2
— Meg Pryde (@MegPryde) April 18, 2019
The New York Times tweeted video of the event.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) April 17, 2019
Qai Qai, the Instagram-famous doll of the daughter of Ohanian and wife Serena Williams, was a major topic of discussion at the event. Qai Qai apparently made a surprise, sneak appearance during Ohanian’s talk in Darden’s Abbott Auditorium.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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