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.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.