Internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian uses his influence to champion paid family leave.
Alexis Ohanian’s experience caring for his wife and daughter after her complicated delivery opened his eyes to a void in national policy.
Look up Alexis Ohanian Sr.’s Twitter account and his self-description offers the following: “Son of an undocumented immigrant. Entrepreneur: @initialized @reddit. Business Dad (now a podcast) fighting for #paidfamilyleave for all Americans.” In two lines, the co-founder of SF-based Reddit (reddit.com) covers two major policy issues and two entities that are shaping business investments and conversations across the country—thanks to his advocacy and influence.
Of course, the 38-year-old internet entrepreneur has never been shy about being bold. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2005, he co-founded Reddit along with Steve Huffman, sold it to Condé Nast in 2006, and is now on the board of directors of the company, which has grown into the third-largest website in the country. In 2016, he co-founded Initialized Capital (initialized.com) in San Francisco along with Garry Tan, an early-stage venture capital firm that has more than $500 million under management and a portfolio with $36 billion in the market thus far.
But on Sept. 1, 2017, he and his wife, tennis great Serena Williams, welcomed their daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., following a complicated delivery that left Williams suffering from pulmonary embolism and hematoma. Both required several surgeries, forcing the new mom to be largely bed-ridden for six weeks. While Ohanian’s success afforded him the ability to stay with his family and care for both his wife and daughter, he realized that he was by far the exception in a country where there is no national paid leave policy for fathers or mothers.
Alexis Ohanian took 16 weeks of paid paternity leave after the birth of daughter Olympia with his wife, Serena Williams (above). This was the policy at Reddit, the company he co-founded. Since then, Ohanian has advocated for paid family leave saying no parent should have to choose between family and a job.
Because of this life-changing event, the bestselling author, entrepreneur and investor has since added the title of advocate to his résumé. On Aug. 12, 2019, he penned a heartfelt op-ed in The New York Times about his wife’s life-threatening delivery and his crucial role in caring for her and their newborn. He continues to fight for family leave policies and champion the role of fathers in America—proving that influence truly can translate to widespread, meaningful social impact.
Ohanian with his daughter, Olympia
What made you decide to go public with your personal experience after your daughter was born, and when did you decide to make it a cause?
As someone who has spent much of my adult life on social media, I didn’t really think twice about sharing my experience of becoming a dad and taking leave when Olympia was born. It wasn’t until I saw some of the responses to my posts from parents across the country and started learning more about the harsh reality of paid leave in America that I became more vocal about the issue. The stats are jarring—only 9% of workplaces in the U.S. offer paid paternity leave to male employees, and 76% of fathers are back to work within a week after the birth or adoption of a child. I was fortunate enough to not have to choose between keeping my job and being with my family when they needed me, but many Americans do not have that luxury, and that needs to be changed. I’ve since been able to talk to hundreds of fathers about this issue, and was able to go to DC in October to start pushing for real change in the form of a federally provided, quality paid family leave policy.
How has the reaction been since the NYT op-ed?
It’s been heartening to see people from all walks of life and parts of the country engage with it. So many new dads have reached out to share their stories of becoming a new parent. While some have been fortunate enough to work for companies with generous paid paternity leave policies (or any paid paternity leave policy at all), many others haven’t, or they may have a policy but not a culture where it feels acceptable to take it. All of these conversations led me to create a new podcast earlier this year called Business Dad, which is devoted to interviews with working dads about the good, the bad and the ugly of being a father, and not just limited to paid leave. Dads rarely get asked about struggling to balance between family and career, yet every dad I speak with has an opinion on it. I think it’s important to be open about the parenting challenges that so many experience, along with the tips, hacks, etc. that can help us better navigate the journey.
What have you witnessed in the high-tech industry in terms of work-life balance?
I’ve been outspoken about dispelling ‘hustle porn’ in Silicon Valley—the idea of having to work every hour of every day (and promoting it as a badge of honor) at the expense of everything else in your life, even your health. It’s a toxic and dangerous trend, and you definitely see it quite a bit in the tech industry. Becoming a dad forced me to think about my health for the first time, because I had to start truly living for someone else. I want to be at my best for my daughter, for as long as possible. That attitude shift even led me to invest in companies like Roman (getroman.com), a digital health clinic for men, which spoke to me because they understand that guys normally do a terrible job of taking care of themselves. I am proud that tech companies have been leaders when it comes to offering paid family leave. As all of these companies continue to compete for talent, I want to see an arms race when it comes to offering the best possible leave benefits.
How do you hope to influence the greater community on this issue?
There’s a myth that fathers are not equal partners because they aren’t as biologically necessary as mothers in the beginning. However, any parent knows that there is plenty of work to go around, and dads need the opportunity to be there from the beginning to share the many parental responsibilities with their partners and to develop strong relationships with their children. Through the many conversations I’ve had with other working dads, I’ve learned that it’s super helpful to share experiences, talk about our struggles, and offer ways to move forward. I’d like to destigmatize the idea that dads are ‘babysitters’ for their kids. I cringe whenever I see a headline of me just being a dad with my daughter and it being called babysitting. Thanks to social media, we’re starting to see a cultural shift in the perception of dads and their roles. There is a Reddit community called r/DadReflexes, which is a community devoted to sharing GIFs and videos of dads being dads. Even small things like this can help move the needle and change the way we talk about a dad’s role inside and outside of the home.
What’s next in terms of your business, your advocacy, your personal life?
I’m really excited about everything that we’re building at Initialized Capital and the companies we’re investing in. One area that I’m particularly encouraged by at the moment is ‘family tech,’ or tech that supports families/parents in some way. We’ve made some awesome investments in the space, like Nara Baby (narababy.com), a tracker that streamlines communication between all caregivers (parents, babysitters, grandparents, etc.), as well as The Mom Project (themomproject.com), an online platform that helps women remain active in the workforce after having kids, and Kinside (kinside.com), an app to help parents seamlessly find childcare. On the paid leave front, we’re not going to stop until we get quality, federally provided paid family leave passed. I’m working on planning another trip to DC this year and am hopeful that we can drive urgency around this issue that already has so much bipartisan support hopefully all agree on.
Photography by: from top: Celeste Sloman/Redux; courtesy of Alexis Ohanian (2); Russell Roe