By Daniel Diner ’14
Reddit co-found Alex Ohanian talks with students
Optimistic, energetic, inquisitive—Alexis Ohanian is everything you would expect a young Internet entrepreneur to be. He shared his optimism, energy and intellectual curiosity with an excited group of students and fans recently when he spoke in Johnson Chapel. Ohanian discussed his experience with founding the social news and entertainment website Reddit and other Web startups; the direction of Internet entrepreneurship; and his new book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.
Ohanian came to Amherst at the invitation of the Amherst College Entrepreneur’s Society, a recently reanimated student group that has brought to campus such other speakers as Shaukat Aziz, former prime minister of Pakistan, and has launched a series of oral and video-based business-pitch competitions.
When most eminent speakers visit, it is the students that get particularly excited for the interaction, but with Ohanian it was the opposite: the structure of his #WTPBook tour initiative encourages him to reach out to the students. Before he even arrived on campus, he put out a video on YouTube, engaging Amherst students directly and expressing his enthusiasm for the upcoming talk. He complimented President Biddy Martin because he “heard it was the cool thing to do” and joked about the recent announcement regarding the impending demolition of the social dorms.
Ohanian is one of the best-known names in the tech world. Shortly after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2005, he and his classmate Steve Huffman received funding from the specialized venture capital firm Y Combinator to start Reddit, now one of the most frequented sites on the Web. Ohanian has garnered more national attention through his founding of Breadpig, an enterprise which consults in self-publishing and crowdfunding, and donates its profits to charity; his co-founding of Hipmunk, a visually innovative travel search company; and his leadership roles in the successful grassroots Internet campaigns against the Stop Online Piracy Act and Project IP Act, two highly controversial Congressional bills that would have tightened regulation of the Internet. It’s understandable how Ohanian believes the internet to be one of the most culture-bridging elements of this century. “Thomas Friedman was wrong,” Ohanian said during his talk. “The world is not flat…but the World Wide Web is.”
Ohanian used his platform in Johnson Chapel to engage and encourage the audience. He spoke about his success with Reddit, but only to emphasize how nonlinear his path was and how improbable success seemed before he actually reached it (he and his co-founder didn’t expect to meet Y Combinator’s challenge of “building the front page of the Internet”). He described how his success hinged on his learning of computer-programming skills, and he urged the audience to study programming as well, as learn-to-program websites such as Codeacademy.com make the task hugely accessible and the process uniquely democratic. “[Programming] is the most valuable skill of this century … and for those who don’t [program], I have good news… It’s also one of the most accessible.”
And Ohanian’s engagement didn’t end in how he spoke to the audience; he also asked questions, starting with: “Is anyone working on anything interesting right now?” When a woman raised her hand, Ohanian invited her onto the stage to tell the crowd about her startup. “I do this at every place I visit,” Ohanian said. “And the result is always exciting.”
He also devoted a large chunk of his time to a live interview of Parker Holcomb ’11, who is known best around the Amherst community for running All College Laundry and All College Storage, both of which he founded while still a student.
Ohanian’s message was abundantly clear: Young people have access to historically unprecedented opportunities through the Internet, and they ought to consider those over traditional options. “One of my initiatives,” he said, “is to get [college graduates] off the street… Wall Street.”