“Why are we not talking about mental health and therapy? There is a toxic culture of self-sacrifice, and then posting about it on Instagram. The people who are, “the best,” all rely on rest as much they do work,” according to Alexis Ohanian.
HCTCNJ hosted a watch party for Get With the Times’ “Innovate Like a Boss with Alexis Ohanian” lecture, streaming the talk on entrepreneurship, technology and how to turn a crazy idea into one that changes the world, this past Wednesday, April 17th.
The event, which took place at University of Virginia, was moderated by Sapna Maheshwari, business reporter for The New York Times. The Get with the Times series inspires young people around the country to get involved with issues that matter most to them. Past lecturers include Bernie Sanders and Ashley Graham.
Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder of Reddit, who has funded over 100 startups and is the author of novel “Without Their Permission.” At 35, he is a CEO, married to tennis player Serena Williams, and a father to daughter Olympia. Despite his successfully, he humbly began his talk with a humble thank you to the audience for, “even coming out for this.”
On a trip down memory lane back to his undergrad days in Charlottesville, Ohanian told the story of his beginnings at college. “I was pre-med for a week, like a lot of kids,” said Ohanian. He wound up in an Ancient Greek History class and later declared a history major. “Of course I want a degree in history. It’s going to give me endless career opportunities,” he joked.
As one of the first members of his family to go to college, Ohanian hyper-focused on his GPA and becoming a lawyer, though, as Ohanian discussed, that didn’t exactly go as planned, “I walked out of the LSAT and went to the Waffle House on 79,” he said. From there, he convinced his roommate to start Reddit, and the rest is history.
Despite his success, Ohanian wishes he was more experimental in taking classes and didn’t worry so much about his GPA. Something else he would’ve done differently? “My hideous chin beard. Would’ve done that differently,” he joked.
Ohanian started seeing his path as an entrepreneur when the Internet was beginning to boom. He first had, “a little hustle,” building free websites for adults who couldn’t figure out how to do so themselves. His dad at the time was struggling working at his small travel agency, losing business to the Internet, and so to avoid being on that end, he knew whatever startup he had would have to be software and Internet based.
Ohanian left Reddit in 2010 and came back to the company full-time in 2014 during its split from Condè Nast. Today, he is an acting board member, which means he represents the shareholders of the company and acts as a “check and balance,” to the CEO.
Now a managing partner at early stage venture capital firm Initialized, Ohanian gives money to entrepreneurs with worthy startups. He gives guidance, but, “It’s not at all like Shark Tank,” he says. Companies Ohanian has invested in include Instacart and Coinbase.
“The really big ideas are the ones that push up on the boundaries of what feels ‘normal,’” explained Ohanian, and Patreon was one of them for him, which is a micro-patronage website. YouTube artists use this to get pledges and continue to create content. Though the idea of subscribers donating money to a favorite YouTuber of theirs seems outlandish, Ohanian thinks the world of creatives has always been in need of a service like this.
“Michelangelo was not on his back painting a ceiling without someone paying his bills,” said Ohanian.
Part of the startup world is the, “hustle culture,” or “hustle porn,” according to Ohanian, and he feels it can be inherently toxic to those overexerting themselves in order to work hard. “It goes without saying, you have to work hard to be great at what you do. But there has to be a respite from that, otherwise it becomes self-destructive.”
“It is a priority to take care of yourself,” said Ohanian. As a victim of false paparazzi labeling him as, “babysitting,” whenever he is spotted with his child, he hopes for full-family leave to be normalized in the country and feels there are so many long term benefits to having time off with the family.
“The bar is so damn low. Men get praised for acknowledging they have a kid. Let’s not do that,” Ohanian said.
Ohanian was then asked by a student on his advice for women thinking of going into the tech industry. The industry was originally was full of women developers, according to Ohanian, but it has shifted. “The good news is that larger companies are getting a lot better and women are leading a lot of the outreach,” Ohanian said. His advice was to, “not give up, and I hate that is the advice I have to give, but there are so many amazing women in tech right now that are moving things in the right direction, and I can only be an ally to this,” he said.
He gave some further advice on fighting fear when first starting out in the business world, “When you are starting out, no one actually cares,” he joked, “You are going to spend so much time getting people to actually care, and you will find a few people, and realize it isn’t so bad. So long as your interests are good, we need more people to feel comfortable creating and sharing, now more than ever.”
And Ohanian’s advice on how to come back from a failed idea? “Come up with 10 more.”
Debra Kate Schafer, a freshman journalism and professional writing major, learned much from watching Ohanian’s lecture. “He is more than just innovative with tech, he’s pretty innovative and inspirational when it comes to race, gender and family values,” said Schafer, “Not every modern CEO has those values and morals.”
Megan Hyjack, a senior graphic design major, definitely gained advice on kick-starting her career with support by her side, “He had a lot of perspectives on a lot of fields, which is interesting to hear as a college student," said Hyjack, “He noted that the friends that surround you in school are the ones who inspire you to do the best, and that’s definitely been true in my college career, so I was happy to hear that helped him succeed.”
Photos courtesy of Mia Ingui.