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

What's to come?
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.

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If I hadn't attended University of Virginia, where I met my co-founder Steve Huffman, neither reddit nor hipmunk (a travel site Steve co-founded and I joined a week before launch) would exist today. And if Steve hadn't taught himself how to code using freely available resources, reddit would have never gotten past the idea stage. The same goes for Snapchat founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, who met at Stanford, graduated, and then launched the incredibly popular app. Even Mark Zuckerberg, the quintessential example for skipping college, would not have made Facebook if he wasn't in his dorm with Eduardo Saverin, insulting his fellow students with Facemash. The fact that Zuckerberg dropped out is inconsequential, since he reaped many of the true benefits of college before he left Harvard.

This intersection of traditional and supplemental education creates a potent mix for success. Even MOOCs (massive open online courses), which have sparked an array of reactions, have the power to make a huge difference in many people's lives. For the millions of people both rich and poor who will never have a chance to attend Stanford, MOOCs are democratizing that knowledge and making a big difference. An awesome example of the power of these courses is Battushig Myanganbayar, a 16-year-old living in Mongolia who was one of just 340 students out of 150,000 who aced the MOOC Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at MIT. Battushig showed the world the early promises of these new forms of education. MOOCs should not replace college all together, but they are going to widen the reach of knowledge like never before. Battushig now attends MIT, demonstrating how new and traditional modes of education reinforce each other. Old-school college doesn’t have to come first.

When I was invited to speak on a panel at the White House for a room full of university deans and administrators, everyone applauded when I said that “resourcefulness,” an extremely important skill, was nowhere to be found on report cards or factored in GPAs. Yet resourcefulness is one of the most important skills one can learn, whether she wants to be an entrepreneur or simply lead a successful life. And these forms of supplemental education, like MOOCs and sites like Codeacademy, require a fair amount of self-motivation and resourcefulness on the part of the user. These two traits are habits, and these new forms of education will further develop the values that make students better people, in addition to attractive job applicants.

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I bring this up because there has been a raging debate recently about the importance of ranking colleges by their return on investment, as in how much graduates earn in salary right out of college. On one level, there are a lot of experiences of college than can't be quantified, from meeting lifelong friends to taking classes with professors leading their field of study. Conversely, just because someone is making a ton of money doesn't mean he’s happy, or successful for that matter. There are plenty of thriving artists, even technologists, who aren't filthy rich. But they are still successful.

So it's with this mindset that I approach the debate over ranking colleges by their graduates’ income. And like my answer above to the changing field of education, my answer here is nuanced as well. (After all, only a Sith deals in absolutes.) It’s important to look at return on investment because the majority of college students are on some sort of financial aid, and they and their families are making substantial sacrifices for the sake of education. But the value students derive from college can't all be quantified monetarily, and even that value that can be quantified doesn’t all show up the year after graduation. In the 16 months before we sold reddit to Condé Nast, Steve and I didn't take a salary (unless you count pizza as salary). The return on investment for our educations would have been a fat zero. And the value from the acquisition and the value to the world by having reddit exist would never show up in these measures.

Granted, I do realize that the monster Steve and I created eats into global productivity, since 81 million people worldwide are discussing cat photos instead of working. Hopefully, the resources the Internet enables that allowed us to create a website that makes the world less productive will also enable millions of students to master skills they never would have. We need an education solution as ubiquitous as the selfie, only with less duckface.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Alexis Ohanian, who just turned 30, is the co-founder of reddit and the author of Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.