Reddit co-founder, a Columbia native, campaigns for power of Internet

Alexis Ohanian helped build popular website, and is paving way for other entrepreneurs

November 30, 2013|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

The lanky 18-year-old in a blue mortarboard cap, his shoulders festooned with tassels and other regalia, stepped to the lectern, gave Howard High School's Class of 2001 a nervous snicker and spoke words heard in countless other graduation speeches that year.

"There is no reason why this class shouldn't be a testament to the past thousand years of learning, and the next thousand years," Alexis Ohanian told the crowd at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. "Live up to the name, 'Class of the Millennium.' The only future we have is that which we make for ourselves."

At the time, Ohanian envisioned becoming a brain surgeon, a scientist curing disease or, perhaps, a lawyer — not one of the creators of reddit, the so-called "front page of the Internet." But within six years of that high school speech, his role in shaping reddit into one of the 50 most heavily trafficked websites made him a millionaire.

Now the Columbia native is on a nationwide tour promoting the power of a free and open Internet, hoping to instill in college students and entrepreneurs the same take-a-chance attitude that launched reddit.

"The Internet, the best and worst thing about it is this is being written right in front of us," Ohanian, 30, told attendees at a recent business breakfast in Mount Washington. "We're not just exploring the new frontiers; we're actually building it."

Ohanian knows from firsthand experience. He and University of Virginia classmate Steve Huffman built reddit from scratch. While Huffman was the technical brain behind it, Ohanian's fingerprints are on everything, from the site's well-known alien mascot to the deal selling it to Condé Nast for millions on Halloween of 2006.

Reddit, an online bulletin board where users post news articles and photos and vote for the ones they like, is perhaps best known for its "Ask Me Anything" forums, which have drawn the likes of President Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Roger Federer — as well as for spreading countless Internet memes of cat photos or animated GIFs. The site has also ignited controversy for hosting discussions sharing photos of underage girls dubbed "jailbait" and for wrongly identifying several people as the Boston Marathon bombers last April.

Ohanian's lesson is an important one for young adults, said Dave Baggett, an entrepreneur and University of Maryland, College Park alumnus who joined him on stage at an event there. It is helping high-achieving students start their own companies rather than aim for jobs at Fortune 500 giants, Baggett said.

"Whereas in the past you would have to have someone approve what you were doing, whether a channel to get published, or to apprentice with someone to become a master at something, there were always gatekeepers," said Baggett, who sold travel data company ITA Software to Google for $700 million in 2010. "His key message is there are no gatekeepers anymore. I think it's really important for young people to hear that."

Those around Ohanian say the secret to his success is simple: a charming personality and knack for public speaking that is rare in someone who is also so technically gifted. Ohanian traces his accomplishments to experiences from the likes of Ellicott City Boy Scout Troop 874, a CompUSA store off Snowden River Parkway and a Howard High science lab.

"It's really difficult to do what he did," said Brian Femiano, one of a group of Ohanian's closest friends; their bond dates to their days at Thunder Hill Elementary in Oakland Mills. "It takes a certain amount of magic and hard work and the right inspiration, and he had all that."

The way Ohanian describes it, none of it would have happened without a complex set of circumstances that led him to a dormitory in Charlottesville, Va., where he met Huffman.

It started with his name. Though he was named after Alexis Argüello, the three-time world champion Nicaraguan boxer, "having a name that's usually given to girls" is a tough way to grow up, Ohanian wrote in his book, "Without Their Permission," published last month. He was overweight and always the tallest in his class, to boot, he added.

From an early age, his passion was computers. His parents, Chris and Anke Ohanian, knew little of the budding technology at the time; he was a travel agent and she was a pharmacy technician at Howard County General Hospital. Chris Ohanian recalls spending as much as $2,500 on a custom-built PC in about 1993, though their only child used it for little more than playing video games like Doom and Quake until the family sprang for dial-up Internet service a couple of years later.

"He was in seventh heaven," Chris Ohanian said of his son. "This was a huge investment. In hindsight, it was a great move."

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