Successful tech entrepreneurs tend to be jerks. Alexis Ohanian is different.
Take it from a guy who knows; Tony Fadell (Apple, Nest) once threatened me with a lawsuit and Chris Sacca (Lowercase Capital, Shark Tank) stood me up three times in the same week.
With their meticulously crafted public personas, focus group tested authenticity, well rehearsed humbling anecdotes and off-the-shelf passion for social justice, it’s hard to tell who is truly the kind hearted human they present to the public, and who’s just good at faking it.
I’ve known Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian for a long time—before he co-founded the VC firm Initialized Capital and before he was dating his now wife Serena Williams—and from what I can tell, he’s one of the real ones.
Now I’ve got bread to prove it. (Specifically, sourdough.)
I first crossed paths with Alexis in 2013. The then serial-entrepreneur had just published a book titled Without Their Permission, and The Globe and Mail asked me to read it and interview him about it. The book was much better than what you’d expect from a non-writer; it told the story of how the grandchild of Armenian refugees and the son of an undocumented German immigrant learned to code and started a billion-dollar company thanks to the freedom of the internet. It was as much a memoir as it was a rally cry to protect internet freedom, a fight Alexis personally took on a bus tour across America and all the way to Congress (Forbes dubbed him the “Mayor of the Internet” for that effort).
When I got on the phone with Alexis he was genuinely curious of what I thought of his writing abilities, mistaking me (then 25 years old, in my first year as a freelance journalist) for an authority on the subject. The call was scheduled for 20 minutes, but we ended up chatting for nearly an hour.
The second time I crossed paths with Alexis was in Lisbon in November of 2016, the very day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. We were once again scheduled to speak for 20 minutes, and ended up chatting for over an hour, first about the story I was assigned and then about American politics, the Canadian technology industry and basketball. Alexis is a huge Brooklyn Nets fan, and as a Silicon Valley resident he’s also loyal to the Golden State Warriors, both of who were doing far better in 2016 than my struggling Toronto Raptors.
I happened to bump into Alexis again as he was leaving the venue the next day, and asked whether he was going to return for the final day of the conference. He told me he had to leave to go spend time with his girlfriend stateside. I didn’t think much of it, until I read a headline a few weeks later claiming that he was dating tennis superstar Serena Williams.
“Surprise!” he said with a smile when I relayed that story to him the following May in New Orleans during the Collision conference. The conversation was the same as usual—basketball, American politics, Canadian tech, and a little bit of what we’re actually supposed to talk about—only this time he gave me some writing advice, helping me with a book project I was thinking of pursuing (but never did).
Before he left for his keynote presentation he asked what he had missed at the conference the day before. I told him celebrity investor Chris Sacca had won over the audience by showing up with a case of beer, tossing a few out to the crowd, offering one to the interviewer and drinking a few onstage while answering questions. He also stuck around after his talk, taking pictures and giving advice until the venue closed down and security asked him to leave.
Sacca’s talk was genuinely inspiring, touching on how he helped build Uber and Twitter from the ground up, on promoting diversity and inclusion, on dealing with his newfound fame and on how his humble lifestyle made it difficult for Shark Tank producers to flaunt his success on the show. I left New Orleans assuming Alexis and Chris were cut from the same cloth, but that all changed a few weeks later at an event in Stockholm.
I was sent to the very pretentious, celebrity-packed conference in the Swedish capital to write a story about the very concept of “celebrity in tech.” The event was like none I had ever attended or probably will ever attend again; about 200 celebrities and 20 journalists packed into a small banquet hall. That week I got Nick Jonas to say hi to my little sister on Instagram, met hip-hop producer Boi-1Da after noticing him rocking a Toronto Blue Jays hat, I got a hug from Mario Batali (which seems super creepy in hindsight) and I had a conversation with a nice blonde woman whom I later learned was Rita Wilson. I also got selfies with Action Bronson, Pharrell Williams and another, less blurry one with Chris Sacca, who expressed interest in my story and promised me an interview at some point during the three-day event.
I noticed something was amiss, however, when he got up onstage that morning with another case of beer, handing them out to the crowd and offering one to the onstage interviewer before cracking one open himself; a move less endearing at 10am in Sweden than it was at 5pm in New Orleans. He then proceeded to repeat every answer, every humbling story and every charming anecdote in the exact same words and tone as he had just a few weeks earlier.
After he got off stage he went to a private room to speak with a reporter from NBC, where I heard him repeat those very same answers and anecdotes in the very same words and tone for a third time while waiting for him in the hallway. As he walked out I asked if he had 5 minutes to speak with me for my story, and he informed me that he had to run out quickly to get a souvenir for his wife, but would speak to me when he returned in an hour. I waited for two. He never returned.
The next day I caught up with him again, and he again told me he would sit down with me later that day, this time not specifying a time and place but giving me his word he’d speak to me before the end of the conference. I approached him one more time, on the final day of the event, to request the interview he had enthusiastically agreed to days earlier (and which I had promised my editors by this point). He apologized for losing track of time, gave me his email address and promised a phone call the next week, but never responded to any of my emails.
I ended up going forward with the story thanks to an interview with former Apple executive and Nest founder Tony Fadell, though that interview didn’t go so smoothly either. The day it was posted I got an angry call from his publicist threatening “legal action” unless I removed one of his quotes. A quote that he said. To a journalist. On the record. (A Wired editor later told me that a lawsuit threat from Tony Fadell is a right of passage for tech reporters).
I know it’s not wise to provoke angry, litigious billionaires, but here’s the quote in question, about the new crop of entrepreneurs:
“It’s almost like learning how to have sex by watching porn. When they read it through the media, now that it’s been so sensationalized, they think this is how you create a startup company.”
(It’s still there, and I haven’t been sued yet.)
Anyway, I left Sweden pretty jaded about the whole experience, and began to wonder if Alexis was genuine in his kindness, his passion and his humility, or if he was just another stuck up celebrity CEO putting on a friendly face for the media.
I returned just a few days before the Raptors were eliminated from the 2017 playoffs in particularly embarrassing fashion (swept by the Cavaliers). The next day I received an email from Alexis, featuring a Gif of the Toronto Raptor mascot running onto the court and falling flat on his face, under the words “sorry not sorry.”
I would meet with Alexis one more time in person (back in Lisbon for Web Summit 2018) where we continued our now 4-year long conversation about American politics, Canadian tech and basketball, before getting around to what we were actually supposed to talk about.
Then two weeks ago, the day after the Toronto Raptors took a commanding 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals, I got an email from my editor at Fast Company asking if I was available to interview Alexis for a story about his new campaign with Dove Men+Care, fighting for paternity leave in the United States. I quickly agreed.
“Alexis, you have Jared on the line from Fast Company,” said a publicist before we began the conversation.
“Oh no,” he laughed.
“I want you to know that I have no interest in talking to you about paternity leave,” I joked. “I orchestrated this whole thing just to trash talk the Warriors.”
We spoke at length about the Raptor’s success this season, likely to the bewilderment of the publicists on the line. Alexis was still confident in his Warriors’ ability to mount a comeback, so he proposed a bet; if the Warriors won the series, I’d send him a bottle of Canadian maple syrup. If the Raptors won, he’d send me some San Francisco sourdough bread.
Basketball fans know how this story ends; the Raptors lost by a single point in game 5 but bounced back to win it all in Game 6. The day after the victory I sent Alexis an email (below)
In his response he CCed his assistant, who sent me the three loaves of sourdough bread I’ve been enjoying all week (so much avocado toast, yet still never enough).
The tech industry is filled meticulously crafted public personas, focus group tested authenticity, well rehearsed humbling anecdotes and off-the-shelf passion for social justice. I know because I’ve met plenty of these types in my now seven-year career as a freelance tech reporter.
After all those experiences I can say with confidence that Alexis Ohanian is a gem; and now I’ve now got three loaves of sourdough bread to prove it.
(I also sent him a bottle of maple syrup; that’s just how we do things in Canada).