Alexis Ohanian Gains Perspective in Yerevan

By AYFWest · May 11, 2010

Cofounder of Reddit.com discusses his start-up, his experience in Armenia with Kiva, and his endeavor: TEDxYerevan

By Nyree  Abrahamian

“Wake up. Get ready. Go to work. Tea. Reddit. Chitchat. Reddit… Start work.  This is how I start my average workday. Reddit.com is an addiction, for me and for thousands of people around the world. It’s a social media website where users (Redditors) post interesting links and other users can vote and comment on them. The links that get the most “upvotes” make up the front page of interesting, witty, insightful and comical articles, photos and videos.”

Reddit is the brainchild of Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, who started the site fresh out of college in 2005. When I first googled Reddit and read this, like any good Armenian, my eye was immediately drawn to the –ian, and I felt proud that I could add another name to my list of brainy Armenians. So when I found out that Alexis Ohanian would be in Yerevan (where I live) for a few months, I knew I had to track him down and talk to him.

Alexis is here on a three-month fellowship with Kiva (kiva.org), an organization that allows people to lend money via the internet to microfinance institutions in developing countries, which in turn lend the money to small businesses. After selling Reddit to Condé Nast in 2006, he has been keeping busy with several projects, his recent connection to Kiva being one of them. He has also founded a new website, www.breadpig.com, “an uncorporation that’s responsible for bringing geeky things into the world”, and in December 2009, gave a TED Talk about the power of social media.

If you haven’t come across it yet, TED.com (another of my online addictions) is a non-profit foundation that holds conferences all over the world in which some of the world’s leading thinkers share “ideas worth spreading,” as the TED motto goes, through short lectures which are broadcast online.

After spending only a few weeks here, Alexis quickly realized that Armenia is a place filled with “ideas worth spreading,” and is now helping organize Armenia’s very own TEDx conference (www.tedxyerevan.com – an independently organized TED event), to be held on September 15, 2010 in Yerevan.

We met, and discussed a range of topics from social media to Armenia-diaspora relations, over hot bowls of spas (yogurt soup).

Nyree Abrahamian: What is Reddit?

Alexis Ohanian: Reddit is basically a news website where readers, not editors, determine the front page. It’s a place where interesting links from anywhere on the internet get submitted by people, and other people vote on them. If they like them, they vote them up, if they don’t like them, they vote them down. The end result is this evolving front page of interesting links.

N.A.: How did Reddit come about?

A.O.: My cofounder, Steve Huffman, and I were trying to solve the problem of not being entertained enough in the morning when we woke up. There wasn’t a good destination to find all the best stuff on the web. And it seemed like there were two possible solutions. One, we get a bunch of people to curate and figure out what the best stuff is, and that was going to be costly and time consuming. Or, we just let all of our readers do that work for us. And in the end, it turns out that all these people (we get about 7 million unique visitors a month) spread out all over the world, can help to find all of the best stuff on the web… certainly better than we could.

N.A.: Why did you decide to volunteer with Kiva? And why in Armenia?

A.O.: I decided to do it because when I first discovered Kiva in 2008, the very first thing I did when I went to their website was search for Armenia, and we weren’t there, and that made me sad. I thought, ‘I know this diaspora pretty well, I mean, I’m a part of it, and they seem to be very keen on the future of Armenia… ‘ And the Kiva model is one that I do believe in, and I thought, ‘Why are they not in Armenia? It’s a no-brainer.’

So I was eventually able to get a hold of the president of Kiva through a friend, and annoyed him, basically, until he finally relented. So long story short, six months ago, Kiva started work here.

N.A.: What are your impressions of Armenia so far?

A.O.:What has really struck me is that… it’s not a country that seems to want help. I don’t know if that sounds right. The perspective from the States is that, here is a country that needs help, and fair enough, that could be true. But there is this… I don’t know if it’s stubbornness, or pride… but everyone I meet seems to be interested in helping Armenia, but doing it in ways in which Armenians help themselves. And that’s valid.

I think it’s given me some good perspective, because now I’m going to go back and probably be more engaged with the diaspora from this experience, but doing it with I guess a more Armenian perspective…

I was always proud of being Armenian but it was just like, that was it. I was proud to be Armenian, but not in connection to present-day Armenia. Now, I would like to be able to keep the relationships I made here, thanks to the internet, and perhaps be a more attuned voice for Armenia.

N.A.: You gave a Ted Talk in December. How did this opportunity come about?

A.O.: I was invited to my first TED (TED Global – Oxford) just under a year before and was hooked.  Heard about TED in India at TED Global and almost immediately started checking my calendar.  When I arrived, they were doing a (routine, I believe) open call from TEDsters (attendees) for anyone interested in giving a talk.  The big TED mantra is that the attendees are all as interesting as the speakers, so why not let some of them just spontaneously come up and share something.

They asked for a brief pitch and a video of a past talk, I believe, which I had thanks to YouTube, and I told them something they liked, so they asked me to give a TED Talk.  I only had a couple days’ notice to get slides and a talk together, but thankfully it was only supposed to be about four minutes.  I’ve never rehearsed more for a talk in my life. And my rehearsal time to talk time ratio was absurd, but I think it all paid off.

N.A.: What did you gain from the experience?

A.O.: I was ‘sighted’ for the first time in my life by a busboy in San Francisco who’d seen my TED Talk, which was pretty awesome.  Most importantly, I’ve gotten plugged into the TED network, which has allowed me to host the TEDx we’re having in Yerevan this September.

N.A.: TEDx Yerevan – why did you decide to go for this? What can we expect?

A.O.: Because I kept meeting so many potential TEDsters, basically, a lot of motivated and smart people with ideas worth spreading.  We – and I should stress the we because I’m only one of a team of about 6 people bringing TEDx to Yerevan – are aiming to make this a premier event for anyone interested in world-changing ideas and implementing them.  We’re assembling the best speakers to talk on topics suggested by visitors to the TEDxYerevan website (version 2 is on the way) and want to invite attendees who are themselves full of ideas worth sharing.

I hope this conference is a starting point for countless great Armenian innovations, projects, and partnerships.

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