Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian Holds "Office Hours" at Swarthmore Talk

by Sam Cleaves '14
Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian (left) with Prizeo co-founder Bryan Baum '11
Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian (left) with Prizeo co-founder Bryan Baum '11. (Photos by Martin Froger-Silva '16)

"How many people are writing about something you're really passionate about?" asked Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian during his talk in Science Center 101 earlier this month. Immediately, scattered Swarthmore hands shot up.

"We all have amazing things we care about, are passionate about. The people that make a difference are the ones who put their hands up in weird situations," Ohanian said, as he encouraged the audience to take advantage of opportunities and "put their hands up."

Ohanian is the co-founder of the website Reddit, the so-called "front page of the internet." Reddit – which Ohanian helped build from the ground up – specializes in social news and entertainment and allows users to share content in the form of links or text posts.

The Swarthmore event was a part of the larger tour for Ohanian, who is making 150 stops in five months to promote his new book Without Their Permission, which focuses on Internet entrepreneurship and activism. The event was organized by Nimesh Ghimire '15 and Jack Yang '14, with significant help from fellow students, the Entrepreneurship Club, and members of the administration. Ghimire is an economics and rural innovation major from Kathmandu, Nepal, while Yang is a computer science, economics, political science, and psychology major from Tianjin, China.

"Global connectivity has changed the way we do (and create) business, and that the best way to make a dent in the world is to get started on something you are passionate about right away," says Ghimire, on what Ohanian conveyed to the audience. Ghimire is the founder of the Peace Innovation Lab in Nepal.

Ohanian delivered an interactive and inspirational keynote to a full audience of Swarthmore students by describing the Internet as "the world's largest stage and library in one." The platform on which he built and defined his career can be the forum for which the creative ideas from places like Swarthmore come to fruition.

Ohanian's inspirational words were complemented by a tangible example of a Swarthmore education leading to entrepreneurial success. Bryan Baum '11, the co-founder of Prizeo, joined Ohanian on stage during the event.

"If I can't motivate you, he will," Ohanian said.

Alexis Ohanian and Bryan Baum '11 with students
Ohanian and Baum discussed students' own startup ideas and gave real-time feedback during the event.

Prizeo is a non-profit that has worked with celebrities like Justin Bieber and Snoop Dogg, among many others, to facilitate virtual raffle systems that benefit the charity of the celebrity's choosing. Participants are incentivized to bid to win unique hangout experiences or other items tailored to the celebrity's interest or field. Most importantly, charities, which are individually selected by each celebrity, receive 90 percent of the prize revenues.

During his time at Swarthmore, Baum studied economics, mathematics, and philosophy and went on to study at Oxford University. Reflecting back on his experience, he understands his undergraduate education was integral to the development of his work. "The biggest thing Swarthmore taught me was no matter how hard you study for that exam, it will always be harder than you expect," Baum said, "and that's surprisingly really good preparation for life in general."

Returning to campus, Baum was enthusiastic to be a part of a "heightened sense of entrepreneurship around campus" that he says wasn't as present when he was a student. That said, he thought Swarthmore has always emphasized the core elements of successful entrepreneurship, though perhaps in less direct ways.

"You have to carve your own path and figure out things for yourself," he said. "While it may seem unfair, it forces you to have a strong work ethic and that's what you need if you're at a start-up."

Following the keynote, the two start-up founders held their own version of "office hours," in which three student groups presented their own ideas and listened to critiques and advice from the professionals who had been in their shoes not so long ago.

Gabe Khaselev '14, a computer science and engineering major from Mommouth Junction, N.J., and Reece Liang '14, an economics major from Amherst, Mass., were first up, pitching Crowd, an Android chatting application. They came up with the idea because they "hate group texts." With Crowd, one can create a chat room for a location, which makes it more relevant. Liang argued that human conversations are "fluid, people can come and leave. People can't leave group texts." With Crowd, he said, people can enter and exit conversations.

Ohanian asked how many users it will take for it to be valuable, while Baum suggested the group try to find established groups and ask them to use it.

Next up, Brennan Klein '14, a Tucson, Ariz. native majoring in psychology, echoed Ohanian's appreciation of the Internet, but suggested that the "interconnectedness comes at a huge cost." He argued that there is a lot of content on the Internet that he doesn't necessarily care about. Thus Kelin's creation, Wallet, would create "a better way to build consumer experiences with advertisements." Ohanian cautioned Klein to be aware of the "one percent" rule for social media sites; according to Ohanian, only about one percent of social media users are really producing content, everyone else is "lurking." Ohanian recommended that Klein identify those people and cater to them.

Last up was Lectern, the project of Callen Rain '15, a computer science major from Hyattsville, Md., and Justin Cosentino '15, a computer science major from Ellicott City, Md., that intends to adapt RSS readers into a social sharing tool that identifies what friends and colleagues are reading online. Ohanian said that they should involve their friends promptly and then post it on Hacker News.

Ohanian ended the event in awe of the students he met, saying "there are so many of you doing cool stuff right now!" He concluded by reminding the audience that we all have one life and we need to make the most of it. Then, as if at a 76ers game, Ohanaian was ushered off the stage by an assistant who unveiled a t-shirt cannon, sending the attendees into an ecstatic frenzy. It was a fitting finale for a thrilling event that bombarded Swarthmore students with inspiration and encouragement in the pursuit of their individual passions.