Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian will speak at Johns Hopkins' virtual commencement - Technical.ly Baltimore

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May 18, 2020 3:18 pm

Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian will speak at Johns Hopkins’ virtual commencement

Ohanian, who is an investor and husband to tennis star Serena Williams, will speak to the Hopkins community on May 21. After growing up in Columbia, he has kept local ties over the years.
Alexis Ohanian speaks at Collision Conf in 2017.

Alexis Ohanian speaks at Collision Conf in 2017.

(Photo via Flickr/Collision Conf)

He may not be a household name on par with Microsoft’s Bill Gates or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — not yet anyway — but Alexis Ohanian is a 37-year-old entrepreneur and investor who seemingly has it all.

At 23 he co-founded Reddit, which is now one of the most-visited websites in the world valued at $3 billion. He’s been called “the mayor of the internet” by Forbes because of his efforts to protect internet freedom and defend net neutrality.

He’s married to tennis superstar Serena Williams and has a two-year-old daughter with her, Alexis Olympia Ohanian. A former Howard County resident now lives in Palm Beach, Florida, but manages a company based in San Francisco, he’s appeared on late night TV with Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. He comes across as witty and personable.

In short, he’s an American success story and a not-too-shabby role model for college seniors heading either to the workforce or grad school.

Now he’s one of the youngest people ever chosen to deliver the university-wide commencement speech for The Johns Hopkins University – and the first ever to do so in a pandemic.

“Been working on my speech for a little while now, adapting it to the circumstances we’re now facing,” Ohanian tweeted recently, in a message aimed at Hopkins seniors. “Though I wish we could celebrate your achievement in person, I’m grateful to join your graduation exercises digitally.”

Ohanian’s address is part of a virtual commencement ceremony that Hopkins is planning for May 21 at 11 a.m. Maryland’s colleges and universities can’t hold in-person graduations this spring because of Governor Larry Hogan’s March 12 executive order banning public gatherings to curb the spread of COVID-19.

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In response, some Maryland schools have cancelled graduation ceremonies or postponed them until the fall. Others, including Hopkins, chose to honor graduates with virtual ceremonies.

Hopkins’ university-wide ceremony will include remarks from President Ronald Daniels, Board of Trustees Chair Lou Forster and others. During the virtual event, Hopkins will confer more than 9,000 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to students in nine divisions. It’s such a big event Hopkins usually holds it at the Royal Farms Arena downtown.

Ohanian, aka kn0thing on the internet, seems a timely choice for Hopkins’ first-ever virtual ceremony, given his status as a tech wizard. Actually, this won’t be first graduation speech. He was the student speaker at his 2001 high school graduation at Howard High School in Ellicott City. He also returned to Howard High in 2015 for another speech, dropped an F-bomb, and was famously escorted out of the building.

Ohanian gave the 2014 commencement speech at Wisconsin’s Carthage College, where he quoted Taylor Swift, impersonated Bane and wisecracked to the audience: “I am so happy to see so many of you Redditors actually managed to graduate.” He has also made stops back in Maryland over the years like Baltimore’s TechBreakfast in 2013. For his participation this year, he’ll receive an honorary degree from Hopkins during the 2021 graduation ceremony in Baltimore.

Born in New York, Alexis Kerry Ohanian grew up in Columbia, making him part of a generation of business leaders and creative types to come out of the intentionally color-blind “new town” started in the 1960s by developer James Rouse. Others include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon and Golden Globe-winning actor Edward Norton, a grandson of Rouse’s.

Ohanian’s mother was an undocumented immigrant from Germany, who was trained to be a pharmacist but started out in America as an au pair. She was undocumented for a period because she overstayed her visa. His father was born in Armenia. His great grandparents on his father’s side were refugees after the Armenian Genocide.

During his junior year at the University of Virginia, where he majored in history with the intention of going to law school, Ohanian had an epiphany one day in a Charlottesville Waffle House and decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer.

He ended up co-founding Reddit in 2005 with his college roommate and “fellow gamer,” Steve Huffman. One the social news aggregation and discussion site, registered members submit a wide range of content that is then voted up or down by other members. The site’s posts are organized into user-created boards called subreddits, and submissions with the most up-votes appear on the site’s front page. Ohanian once said his goal was to make Reddit “the front page of the internet.” The site also became known for the feature is Ask Me Anything, which allows well-known people to answer questions from users in a scheduled Q&A session, and almost nothing is off limits. Investors include Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Ron Conway, Snoop Dogg and Jared Leto.

Ohanian and Huffman sold the company in 2006 to Conde Nast Publications, and in 2011 it became a subsidiary of Conde Nast’s parent, Advance Publications.  Ohanian returned in 2015 to serve as its executive chair, and Huffman, username spez, returned as chief executive. Last year, Reddit was ranked by the Amazon-owned web traffic analyst Alexa Internet as the No. 5 most-visited website the U. S. and No. 13 in the world, with 55 percent of its users coming from the U. S. followed by 7.4 percent from the United Kingdom and 5.8 percent from Canada.

Alexis Ohanian speaking at Exec TechBreakfast in November. Behind him on the screen: a screenshot of the earliest version of reddit.com.

Alexis Ohanian speaks at TechBreakfast in Baltimore in 2013. (Technical.ly file photo)

Ohanian also cofounded Initialized Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm with more than $500 million under management and a portfolio that has $36 billion in market value. Initialized Capital has invested in Patreon, Coinbase, and Instacart. Last year, it led a $5 million Series A round for Columbia-based Zentail. which has seen explosive growth during the coronavirus crisis from shoppers who don’t want to go to a grocery store.

As an investor, Ohanian is best known for providing seed money to support tech start-up companies like Reddit was. “I’m taking all of the lessons I learned in order to help companies just starting out for the very first time,” he says in a video trailer announcing his selection as Hopkins’ commencement speaker. “I want the world to be better as a result.”

According to Hopkins, Ohanian was also a partner at the seed accelerator Y Combinator; created and hosted a show called Small Empires about tech startups and their communities; and wrote a bestselling book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.

A sought-after speaker and advocate for gender equity and internet access, he has produced a TED Talk, volunteered in Armenia as a Kiva Fellow and twice appeared on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list of achievers in tech. He’s used his position to fight against the Stop Online Piracy and PROTECT IP acts and to advocate for federal paid family leave.

Besides his business acumen, Ohanian brings a touch of star power and celebrity glamour to the Hopkins graduation. His marriage has received extensive media coverage, with at least one publication referring to him as “Mr. Serena Williams.”

According to an August 2017 cover story about their relationship in Vanity Fair, Ohanian had never seen a tennis match before meeting Williams, and Williams hadn’t heard of Reddit. The article took a close look at their relationship, from a chance meeting in Italy to Williams’ surprise wedding announcement on Reddit to the way she wordlessly revealed her pregnancy to Ohanian before the 2017 Australian Open, which she entered and won even though she was pregnant.

“I felt like a door had been opened to a person who made me want to be my best self,” Vanity Fair quoted Ohanian as saying about Williams. “I find myself just wanting to be better by simply being around her because of the standards she holds.”

In the making-other-husbands-look-bad department, Ohanian put up four billboards in Palm Springs to celebrate his wife’s first tournament win after having their daughter. He took 16 weeks of paternity leave from Reddit after the baby was born. They rented out a movie theater so a local girls’ organization could attend a free first-day showing of Black Panther. And when his wife was craving Italian food one day, he flew her to Venice. “She wanted Italian for dinner, so…” he quipped on Instagram.

View this post on Instagram

She wanted Italian for dinner, so…

A post shared by Alexis Ohanian Sr. (@alexisohanian) on

As an entrepreneur, “one of my big mantras is to surprise and delight,” he later wrote in an essay for Glamour magazine. “I guess I’ve applied that in some way to romance, and if I can think of a way to top myself, I’ll keep pulling out the stops.”

According to Hopkins’ website, graduates and others will be able to log onto Hopkins’ Virtual Ceremonies page to watch the pomp and circumstance online, including the speakers’ remarks.

Daniels, Hopkins’ president, said in a statement that he believes Ohanian he has a life story and a message worth sharing with this year’s graduates, “at a moment when the world is reimagining how we connect” with each other.

“A tech innovator with a profound sense of humanity, Alexis has used his intellect and imagination to bring communities closer together and advocate for openness and opportunity for the many, not just the few,” Daniels said in a statement. “We are delighted to welcome to the Hopkins family someone who shares our belief that ideas can transform the world and great ideas are worth standing up for.”

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