Some know Alexis Ohanian as the most supportive husband ever. But the co-founder of Reddit and Initialized Capital, an early-stage venture capital fund, really proved his chops this month when Deborah Barros, a candidate for the Alabama state senate, called out the double-standard between men and women’s ability to publicly express emotion.
“Funny how a black female tennis player is held to a higher standard to keep her emotions in check than a Supreme Court nominee,” Barros wrote in a now-deleted tweet.
She was referring to the tennis phenom Serena Williams, who is Ohanian’s wife, and Brett Kavanaugh, the now-confirmed Supreme Court justice whose emotional US Senate confirmation hearings raised questions about his judicial temperament.
“It’s not funny, it’s bullshit,” Ohanian replied. It was just one of many instances in which Ohanian uses his platform—as a widely followed tech mogul and as the husband of one of the world’s top athletes—to advocate on behalf of racial and gender equality.
But Ohanian, who went on to become a partner at Y Combinator and co-founded one of the internet’s most successful sites (Reddit recently surpassed Facebook to become the third most-visited site in America) says he spent spent years overlooking the disadvantages that women and people of color face in tech. Now, at 35, he is focused on how to resolve them. “We talk a lot about blind spots in Silicon Valley … but these blind spots can often be bigger than we think,” he says.
In an interview with Quartz, Ohanian explains why his venture capital fund’s success depends on female partners, how he confronts his fellow tech execs about Silicon Valley sexism, and the very feminist reason that he decided not to run for political office.
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
Not actively enough. I’ve certainly been aware of gender inequality in tech, especially in venture, but I obviously have blind spots. We talk a lot about blind spots in Silicon Valley, and how to mitigate them to find the best new founder or most creative new idea, but these blind spots can often be bigger than we think. The most important lesson I learned from Me Too was the extent of how audacious, offensive, and common workplace harassment is, as well as the tremendous work done to cover it up.
2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?
Of course. I consider myself an advocate of women’s rights on the basis of equality with men. That said, the word “feminist” has many connotations to many people these days. I personally identify as one, but I’m more interested in hearing why someone (women in particular) wouldn’t identify as one.
3. What do you do on a day-to-day basis to advance gender equality?
My co-founder Garry Tan and I are working hard to build Initialized Capital into a venture capital fund that looks different from how VCs have looked in the past—super male-dominated. We’re not doing this for the sake of doing it, or to meet a quota. Having diverse partners who bring to the table a fresh perspective and network for seeking out diverse founders and ideas to invest in makes us a better firm. Roughly 40% of our full-time partners are women, but we still have a lot of work to do.
4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?
Ourselves. Speaking broadly: We’re unhealthy mentally and physically. We’re insecure, and we’ve created a broken system that we’re going to have to acknowledge we can’t fix alone.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?
A little while after the Me Too Movement kicked off, I found myself at a dinner with some other male execs in tech and was shocked at how nervous the conversation was making them. They were concerned about hiring women at all and “not knowing how to conduct themselves.” I remember saying that as leaders, we needed to step up to figure this out—at least in our own companies and workplaces. It didn’t land very well.
Men should talk about sexism more, and male execs should share best practices for creating safer and more equitable working environments. We can’t let fear get in the way of that. There are tech leaders who were accused before Me Too and still operate as though nothing happened. We need more dialogue now and not less.
6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?
Making it to the gym at least four days a week.
7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?
I hope the women I work with at Initialized have heard me tell enough stories about the strong women early in my life—my mother, great aunt, etc.—who made me the man I am today. As for women at large, I wish they all knew how much I enjoy hearing things like this (it’s much more fun than what usually happens when I’m spotted on the street, which is that I get pitched a startup).
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
Think about it the same way you think about your workouts—pain is growth. If you’re feeling discomfort because someone is criticizing an example of your bias, think of it like finishing that set that’s just above your regular weight. It stings, because that’s where growth happens. If you really hear it and process it, you’re growing and you’re getting stronger because you’re becoming more aware.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
I’m lucky because, thanks to my wife, I get to take it back in real time when she brings it to my attention. It’s important to have people around you who keep you in check and that you’re open to listening to them. I’m sure that as a white man in a position of privilege I’ve unconsciously contributed to biases in other ways.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
After we defeated the Stop Privacy Online Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Privacy Act (PIPA), I thought about running for office, and two of the most powerful men in the country told me (separately) that this country needs more women in positions of power, and that if I really wanted to make a difference, I should be working to help get the very best women into those roles.
Leadership means knowing when to lead and also when to follow. There are opportunities for us to be great leaders in our society by recognizing and empowering the best among us.