Q&A: Alexis Ohanian Returns to UVA to Talk Entrepreneurship, Venture Capital

Alexis Ohanian headshot

Alexis Ohanian graduated from the University of Virginia in 2005, the same year he co-founded Reddit. (Contributed photo)

On Wednesday, Alexis Ohanian will be back at the University of Virginia, where, in 2005, he and classmate Steve Huffman registered Reddit.com in Alderman Library.

Fourteen years later, Reddit is still known as “the front page of the internet” and Ohanian, who graduated with degrees from the McIntire School of Commerce and the College of Arts & Sciences, is a leader and inspirational figure for entrepreneurs of all stripes. As co-founder of the venture capital firm Initialized Capital, he has funded more than 100 startups, and helped the company build a portfolio with more than $20 billion in market value so far.

On Wednesday, Ohanian will join New York Times business reporter Sapna Maheshwari to share advice for UVA students and others hoping to follow in his footsteps, at “Innovate Like a Boss With Alexis Ohanian.” The free event, sponsored by the New York Times, begins at 7 p.m. at UVA’s Darden School of Business. Attendees can register here.

In addition to his work with Initialized Capital, Ohanian has led a national conversation on parental leave and other practices to create a healthier work-life balance – especially after the birth of his daughter, Alexis Olympia, with his wife, tennis star Serena Williams. He also made time to cheer on the Cavalier men’s basketball team, attending the national championship game in Minneapolis last week.

We caught up with Ohanian before Wednesday’s event to talk about what he looks for in promising entrepreneurs, what he learned at UVA and what advice he has for current students.

Q. When you seek out promising startups through Initialized Capital, what makes a business, or the entrepreneur behind it, stand out from the rest?

A. First and foremost, an entrepreneur needs to really believe in her company and its mission, and be so passionate about it that others will be compelled to believe in the success as well – whether it’s an engineer she’s trying to recruit or an investor like myself.

I also look for founders who are relentless problem-solvers. We want to see a founder who we know is not going to quit, but also knows how to adapt. Initialized Capital’s mascot, the honeybadger, is actually a symbol for what we are looking for in founders that we invest in – they have to be tenacious. 

Q. You have talked a lot about work-life balance, particularly as it relates to parenthood. What do you see as the biggest obstacles to achieving that balance? What solutions are most promising?

A. In my relationship, the logistics alone make it difficult to achieve work-life balance. I travel all the time for work – whether it’s meeting with portfolio companies, or speaking at events – and my wife’s tennis schedule is hugely demanding. When I’m with my family, I like to fully be with them and to eliminate as many distractions as possible (i.e., my phone!). But when I’m not, some of the little things like creating a shared calendar so we can optimize time together or squeezing in a FaceTime with my family in between meetings definitely help.

Q. Going back to your time at UVA, how your UVA education influence your early ideas for Reddit?

A. I double-majored in commerce and history (and minored in German!) while I was at UVA, which is definitely not a traditional background for a founder. If I did it all over again, I probably would have chosen to pursue a degree in computer science (or at least taken more than one CS class at UVA), but I still think there is a ton of value in the broad exposure a liberal arts degree provides.

My classes at UVA also taught me how to synthesize a broad range of ideas into a cohesive and compelling story, and then communicate it. This was certainly valuable in the early days of Reddit, when we needed to be able to influence people to use our platform or come work for us. It’s hard to start a technology company with a not-very-technical background, but it’s not impossible. You just have to be more cognizant of how to find a good partner with a complementary skill set.

Q. What parts of your education are most valuable to you today?

A. I credit my liberal arts degree with my innate curiosity, critical thinking and communication skills, all of which certainly come to good use in my career now. The humanities education really prepares you for that in a way other disciplines don’t.

Those skills alone are not sufficient to build a technology company, but they’re important. It’s one reason why we invested in Make School; they also believe in creating a curriculum that teaches students to code, but also helps them understand the world with a well-rounded education.

Q. What is your advice for current students or other young entrepreneurs?

A. The best advice I can give to current students is to start learning how to code. I think it’s the most useful skill you can learn right now, and is the modern-day equivalent of learning how to read and write. Software is the future, so think about taking at least one computer class to try it out, or consider majoring in computer science – it’s an essential skill to have under your belt and will really give you a leg up as you enter the job market.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. The hustling culture may appear to dismiss the idea, but sometimes turning to other people for advice or guidance is the best way to move forward. Just don’t aim too high for your advice, because the best people to speak with are actually only a year or two ahead of where you are now; seek them out because they’re not only more accessible, but also more valuable since their advice is more relevant than someone who is 10 years removed from where you are today.