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Ohanian to graduates: Focus your energy, change the things you can

In a virtual Commencement address to the Johns Hopkins Class of 2020, internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian urges graduates to be adaptable, invest in 'the best people in your life'

In an address to the Johns Hopkins Class of 2020, internet entrepreneur and investor Alexis Ohanian reflected on the skills that the graduates would need to conquer a world still in the grip of a global pandemic and the things he wishes he knew on his own graduation day in 2005.

"I know this is not the graduation you all were hoping for and it's just not the same, but it's your ability to adapt to the ruined dreams of your graduation that are the exact skills that you will need right now," quipped Ohanian, who co-founded the internet news aggregator website Reddit shortly after he graduated from the University of Virginia. He continued: "The strongest entrepreneurs all share the same quality, an ability to adapt to circumstances that you cannot control and focus your energy on changing the things and improving the areas you can."

Student in cap poses for a photo
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Commencement 2020

Johns Hopkins celebrates graduates today with a one-of-a-kind webcast featuring notable alumni, surprise guest appearances, and special performances

And Ohanian knows entrepreneurship. He co-founded Reddit with the goal of the site becoming "the front page of the Internet." He sold the company to Condé Nast just a year later, before returning to serve as executive chair of the newly independent company in 2015. Reddit is now the third-largest website in the United States and sixth-largest in the world. He later co-founded Initialized Capital, an early stage venture capital firm that has more than $500 million under management and a portfolio with $36 billion in market value thus far. The company has invested in well-known companies such as Instacart, Ro, Patreon, and Coinbase, among many others.

Still, at times when he feels too cocky, Ohanian said he looks at his wife, tennis champion Serena Williams, and is humbled. When he sees his daughter, he sees the many ways he still wants to improve the world. And when he looks back on his own graduation day, he told the graduates, he sees the faces of the people he wishes he could still embrace, such as his mother, who died of brain cancer. The treatment she had received at The Johns Hopkins Hospital had prolonged her life and provided her more time to spend with her family—part of the reason Ohanian said he was so honored to receive an honorary degree from Johns Hopkins during this year's Commencement ceremony.

"I hope you can find a renewed appreciation for those people in your tribes, the ones closest to you, and the ones who have gotten you to this point," he said.

Read the full remarks as delivered by 2020 Commencement speaker Alexis Ohanian:

Hello Blue Jays. Wait, Blue Jays? That is amazing. What a good mascot. Ca-Caw! I hope that's considered a formal greeting.

I'm Alexis Ohanian and I never expected to be here at a Johns Hopkins graduation. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, but I knew better than to even consider applying back when I was going to college. But look at me now. Huh? How 'bout that? Getting an honorary PhD. Didn't even have to spend years working on it either. Worked out pretty well for me.

I feel very fortunate to be here in front of you all. And I know these are some unprecedented times and this is a very unique graduation ceremony. Basically just a really long Zoom session. But thankfully this will be enjoyed in the comfort of our own homes. You don't even need to wear pants. I'm not. (I am. I am, I promise.)

But anyway, growing up in the Baltimore region, I had so much respect for this university. And I know this is not the graduation you all were hoping for and it's just not the same, but it's your ability to adapt to the ruined dreams of your graduation that are the exact skills that you will need right now. So if that's any consolation, you know, I've got about five minutes to tell you everything you need to know in order to thrive amidst an unprecedented global pandemic and recession. Okay, I got this.

Look, I don't know what the future will be like. It is my job as co-founder of initialized capital to figure out where things are headed and invest in founders who are helping to build the future in order to help build what's next. And we don't know how long this will last. And we're pretty sure there are many parts of our society and our economy that will never be the same again. And so the best thing you can do right now is be adaptive. The strongest entrepreneurs all share the same quality, an ability to adapt to circumstances that you cannot control and focus your energy on changing the things and improving the areas you can. You can find opportunities to use this mindset every single day, regardless of whether or not you're an entrepreneur and in many ways I think this can be a great way to set the tone for your career now, outside of college.

Because frankly, failure, setbacks, disappointments, they're all going to be a part of your life. Up until this point, education (and clearly you all been really good at it—you're graduating from Johns Hopkins University)—up to this point, all of your education has been about not failing. It's been about trying to understand the rules of the game, figuring out whatever it takes to get that A, and then doing it. Scoring good grade after a good grade on tests after tests, semester after semester. That's how you got here—by avoiding failure. And yet there's no more syllabus, there's no more direction, there are no more finals, there is not going to be any more guidance. And failure is going to be a big part of life. Setbacks and disappointments are going to be a big part of your life.

And so the very best thing you can be doing right now is dig in and accept that and then use this new strength and exercise these muscles every day of your life, because you are in a very, very special group of graduates, right? You were among some of the elites in this country, and you have a responsibility. We all do.

You know, I really had no idea what I was doing when I graduated from college in 2005 and I co-founded Reddit right out of school. We managed to get acquired 16 months later and I thought it was a joke. I didn't know how it was possible, after only 16 months worth of work, we could be getting bought. And you know, I managed five years later to come back to Reddit even after we sold it, take it independent, and help lead the turnaround. And I had way more experience, way more understanding. And I'm so proud of the team that was willing to go into a situation where, at the time, it didn't seem like the most obvious or smartest thing to do. But they took a chance and they've helped Reddit have its renaissance and credit's all-in for that. But for all the time that I've spent answering people's questions about Reddit, telling them stories, no one's ever asked me about My Mobile Menu, or "mm-mmm," which is my clever little name for it.

That's because it was our first company and it was a total failure. We'd worked on it for about a year and a half. It was going to be a way to order food from your cell phone. This was back in 2004 when there were no smartphones and you'd never have to wait in line again and you would simply send a text and then the restaurants would get it. Yeah, a fax. Make your order and have it there waiting for you so you never had to wait in line again. That was our plan. That was our pitch. We worked on it for a year and a half of our lives and then were told it would never work. And those investors were actually right! As an entrepreneur, you'll get told things won't work. As a person out in the world, you'll have the door slammed in your face, you will face setbacks all the time.

And the reality is, those are learning opportunities. Those are chances to find progress where the world tried to throw you a roadblock. And I feel like in every circumstance that I have gotten into, I've been comforted by the fact that I know I don't know everything. None of us do. Anyone who acts like they do is just lying. We're all figuring out as we go along. And I'm grateful for the fact that I was given opportunities early on to be able to fail. Like, like My Mobile Menu. There is no Reddit without "Mm-mmm," and there is no me without those failures, without those setbacks.

And you know, frankly, just when I start to feel pretty good about myself and get a little cocky, uh, I roll over and I see my wife and you know, she's the greatest of all time. It's a, it's actually quite liberating, you know, to have such a successful partner and know that no matter how many billion dollar companies I start, I will never make the impact on the world that she has.

And there are a few people on the planet who ever will. And I hope all of you find partners who can make you feel that way, who can motivate you to be your best self. And I encourage you right now, start purging the people in your life, the friends, the acquaintances who are not making you better. Now, I know this, this, it probably shouldn't happen over a text message. Although if we were doing this all in person, in Baltimore, it might make for some awkward rides home. But at the end of the day, the people you spend your time with will have a disproportionate impact on your life and your well-being. And you should absolutely optimize for people who make you better. For people who teach you to be more patient, or whose qualities you admire, or uh, whose baking skills you wish to learn from.

Whatever those things are, those people have such a disproportionate effect on your happiness, on your overall outcome, that it's worth optimizing. Now we say this for co-founders all the time. It sort of goes without saying. If you're gonna start a company with someone, you should find someone whose skills complement yours and whose values align with yours. But I would put that same test to anyone in your life. And you know, frankly, you know, this is a time that would normally be really special for a lot of loved ones who were in the audience. Hopefully a lot of them are with you physically right now. If they're not, I hope they're tuning in. This is a time when, if we were all in person, I would implore you to go give them a great big hug and thank them, and tell them how much you love and appreciate them for supporting you all this way to this point. You know, those are the people who have made massive investments in you. And this is a very important milestone, not just for you, but for all of them. I know it's a little hard with social distancing, to be able to fully embrace all of them. But you better throw on a mask. Uh, make sure everyone's properly sanitized when the time comes. But seriously, a hug goes a long way. A note of appreciation goes a long way. These people care so much about this day in a way that you can't even comprehend. I know I couldn't have, and I look back on the photos of my own graduation with close family members who have since passed, and there are things I wish I could say to them now that I can't, that I wish I had said back in 2005 that I didn't.

And so I hope that you can learn from my own mistakes, from my own failures, whether it's "Mm-mmm," or not giving my mom an extra hug on graduation day. This perspective is so invaluable and I think that's the curse of it. I mean, I don't have a tremendous amount of life experience yet—I'm only... 38? No… 37? I don't know. 37—I do know, though, because of things that happened over the last decade of my life, I do know though how important these people are. And actually I'll always be grateful to Johns Hopkins. The hospital here actually spent a lot of time treating my mom when she was diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma brain cancer. And I know that she got extra months, if not years of her life because of the work of doctors, nurses, health workers, in your hospital system. And I will always, always be grateful for that.

And frankly, it's the reason why I was so humbled and excited to be here for this. To be 21 and get that news when I did at a time when I had just graduated—was just founding Reddit, and I felt invulnerable—gave me a perspective that I carry to this day. It gave me a perspective that I reflect on when I see my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and I think about the world that she will inherit and how much of it I want to show her and how much more I feel like I need to do to improve it for her. It's wild, because even through this screen, I know it won't land in the way that it should, because that curse is that you won't really know until you've lived it and know it.

But trust me, trust me, any investment you make in the best people in your life right now will pay massive dividends. I'm talking long-term value creation. And it's going to be a long road. There's no sugar coating it. We don't know what society or this economy has in store for the next few years. And that is the job market—that is the world that you're going out into. And all of you obviously in the health care profession, I hope, will not be forgotten even as things returned to normal. Because we do have such a high appreciation for all of you. This world is going to be different, but there are still constant threads that will stay the same no matter what. No matter what changes technologically, no matter what changes economically, no matter what changes societally—those are the same things that we, as a species hundreds of thousands of years ago, when our little tribes weren't connected by follows, or up-votes, or likes, when our little tribes were just the people that we woke up with every morning and went to bed with every night and the people around us who we could walk to. And that's about it. If anything, I hope you can find a renewed appreciation for those people in your tribes, the ones closest to you, and the ones who have gotten you to this point, and who'll get you to all the places you want to go.

Again, graduates, I'm so grateful for this opportunity, and I wish you all, all the absolute the best. Thank you.