Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian on Solving America’s Innovation Crisis

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Oct. 17 2013 1:40 PM

How to Start a Billion-Dollar Empire With a Laptop

Reddit’s co-founder has a solution to the innovation crisis in the U.S.

Alexis Ohanian graduating from the University of Virginia in 2005.
Alexis Ohanian graduating from the University of Virginia in 2005.

Photo courtesy of Alexis Ohanian

The skills needed to be successful today are rapidly evolving, which is why education has never been more important—especially for those in the technology industry, where I'm lucky enough to work. Companies (at least the kind ambitious people want to work for) no longer look for someone to come in from 9 to 5 and uphold the status quo. They want resourceful and innovative employees who work hard and get their jobs done regardless of the circumstances.

To baby boomers, these trends are scary, eating away at the foundation of a steady job and life that they helped instill. But we millennials welcome these new paradigms because they instantly show who is resourceful and who isn't—who will go the extra mile and who will coast to the finish. For the people with the skills to succeed, life is good.

Unfortunately, college alone can’t give those skills, and the economy isn’t helping, as promising yet under- or unemployed young adults with six-figure student loan burdens can attest. Meanwhile, people like Bruce Nussbaum, a professor at Parsons and the author of Creative Intelligence, say that America is experiencing an innovation crisis. Meanwhile, higher education is under fire for its narrow focus on rankings and its insane cost.

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So how can we nurture creative thought in a productive way?

Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal founder, thinks the answer is paying students to skip college altogether. He set up the Thiel Fellowship, which awards $100,000 each to 20 people under 20 to pursue their dreams. There are two problems with Thiel's education solution. First, the Thiel Fellowship isn't scalable. Helping 20 kids a year is great, but more than 21 million students enroll in college each year, so the Thiel Fellowship is only helping less than 0.00000095 percent of students. The second problem is that giving a select number of students the option of going to college or getting $100,000 to work on a business creates a false and harmful dichotomy.

The best way to incubate innovation and entrepreneurship is found at the intersection of college and supplemental education. If you sample where today's resourceful elite—the tech titans starting billion-dollar empires with laptops—got their skills, it's almost always a combination of college and supplemental education, like learning how to code with Codeacademy and taking practical classes at places like General Assembly. (Disclosure: I'm an investor in both companies.) The most promising businesses are either building programs for their employees or encouraging them to take supplemental courses to continue learning. These programs, especially in software development, don't offer accreditation—they offer the skills to make careers.

But this doesn’t mean skipping out on traditional higher education. Although no college is perfect, professors and fellow students teach you really important skills. These crucial four years can go a long way toward turning shy and inexperienced freshmen into well-rounded, connected, and inspired graduates.

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