2013-08-14

Reddit Cofounder Alexis Ohanian On The Power Of The Internet To Level The Playing Field

"One of the reasons I love the Internet so much, aside from all the cats, is if it works the way it should great ideas can spread and flourish in a way that they couldn’t have before."

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and Breadpig, is a modern version of the American dream: a tech entrepreneur born to immigrant parents who sold his first company in his early 20s. But he isn't ashamed to admit that he had it easier than a lot of people in achieving success, and those advantages help inform his work in trying to make the Internet a place where everyone can succeed.

"It doesn’t devalue the success that I’ve had, it doesn’t make me any less proud of the success that I’ve had, it doesn’t make me any less ambitious to concede that there were inherent advantages that I got and continue to have that I did not necessarily earn or deserve," Ohanian says. "But I’m totally cool with that."

Coming from a white, middle class, loving two-parent family, Ohanian says, gave him a basic advantage, a start on the diamond somewhere between first and second base, in the parlance of the classic "born on third base, thinks he hit a triple" quip.

"You are born to a certain amount of privilege if you are born to a wealthy family, a well-connected, straight white dude in America. It’s a lot easier to get to home plate that way," he says. "Then I look at someone like Jay-Z who was not even born in the stadium. He was out in the parking lot with a tough family life, poverty, drugs, everything. So to see how much success someone like that has had and we’re defining success in the most superficial way of wealth and power, as business success.

"Oprah would be another one. She was stuck in traffic 10 miles outside the stadium given all that she went through growing up. If you really want to appreciate the full scope of success, you’ve got to go from the start to the present. And in that light, you look at Jay-Z and Oprah and think how did that happen? It is certainly motivational, because I will never feel like I have ever accomplished anything in comparison but it certainly gives you something to strive for."

As a result of that realization, Ohanian feels a responsibility to make the most of it and to use his position to help others find success. His preferred method is by helping more entrepreneurs achieve their goals online.

"One of the reasons I love the Internet so much, aside from all the cats, is if it works the way it should, it’s an open and level playing field where all links are created equal," Ohanian says. "Great ideas can spread and flourish in a way that they couldn’t have before."

The Internet gives everyone a chance to be in the stadium. Every time another Etsy store opens online, there’s a small victory. Another person has an opportunity to show off their skills and wares that presumably customers will discover and want.

"I, as a selfish consumer, just want better stuff in the world. Basically we will all benefit from awesome people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to share their awesome. It will mean better music, better art, better stories, better politicians, better businesses, better nonprofits, better blank, blank, blank," Ohanian says. "The big thing that I want to see thrive are the ideas that I have about the power of a connected and open Internet and what other people can do on it."

Helping to bring those ideas to fruition is behind his launch of Breadpig, a social enterprise that publishes popular webcomics and sells other novelties while donating profits to worthy causes. A choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet by Ryan North, a book that probably would not have seen the light of day through traditional routes, raised nearly $600,000 on Kickstarter in a month.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire

In October, Ohanian will kick off the publication of his new book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, with a 100-stop bus tour to universities across the country. He wants to inspire students to be Internet entrepreneurs and teach them the business skills he knows they aren’t learning in college.

Ohanian’s family narrative and his three-month stint as a Kiva fellow in Yerevan after leaving Reddit in 2010 have had the most impact on his desire to even the playing field for others. Ohanian’s mother is German and lived undocumented in the United States for a year. His father’s parents fled Armenia during the genocide. As a Kiva fellow, Ohanian assisted fellow Armenians with microfinance loans and quickly appreciated the "kind of life lottery ticket" he had as result of being born in the United States.

"While I was there it was hard to not realize this [hypothetical] cousin that I would have had had that genocide not happened, that would not have been born in the United States," he says. "She would probably have the same entrepreneurial ambition, some varying degree of aptitudes, but would have been in a system through no fault of her own that would have really sucked for an entrepreneur. I could see firsthand what a difference a few hundred dollars could make for an entrepreneur who otherwise wouldn’t have any. They don’t have a credit card they can put it on. The reality is there’s some genetic cousin of mine who would or is trying to start a company or just be awesome more generally and microfinance goes a long way towards helping that."

So much of his Armenian identity is built around the horrific events there. As a child, he grew up watching his aunts and grandparents weep as they told stories of the genocide. That family backdrop instilled in him from a very young age how lucky he was.

"It’s hard not to grow up hearing those stories," Ohanian says, "and not think I should really make the most out of this situation."

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