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, Md. “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.
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Now the Maryland 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 Baltimore. “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 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,” Baggett said.
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 (Md.) Boy Scout Troop 874, a CompUSA store and a Howard High School 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 in elementary school. “It takes a certain amount of magic and hard work and the right inspiration, and he had all that.”
In school, Ohanian says, he did “the minimum amount of school work to get the maximum amount of grades.” But that was enough to propel him ahead of others his age in the highly rated Howard County schools that had lured the Ohanians from New York City. Meanwhile, activities such as Scouting provided lessons in assertiveness and leadership.
What others found unusual were signs of creativity and entrepreneurship that might have hinted at his future.
Now, Ohanian’s mission is to motivate the Internet entrepreneurs of the future. He spent much of 2011 campaigning against a pair of anti-piracy proposals in Congress that would have limited Internet free speech. The advocacy earned him the title “Mayor of the Internet,” according to Forbes.
He is on a nationwide tour to promote his book and the idea that nobody needs permission to use the Internet to solve problems, or, as Ohanian puts it, “make the world suck less.”
During football season, Ohanian is back in Maryland at least eight times, for Washington Redskins home games.
Otherwise, his focus is on other startups — Hipmunk, a travel site designed to take the “agony” out of long trips; Breadpig, a resource for entrepreneurs; and 80 others he has invested in. He stopped working for Reddit in 2010 but still serves on the company’s board.
A Forbes report published six years to the day after the Condé Nast sale pegs Reddit’s value at $240 million, which, according to media estimates, could be nearly 50 times what Ohanian, Huffman and their investors were paid for it.
The site now draws about 80 million users. But Ohanian says that doesn’t cause him regret.
“Steve & I absolutely would have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight, but I don’t own a time machine (yet), so I don’t spend time dwelling on what I could’ve done,” Ohanian wrote in an email. “I’ve got stuff to do today.”