The XX Factor

Who the Heck Is Alexis Ohanian, and Why Would Serena Williams Want to Date Him?

Who’s that laid-back, handsome disrupter with the scruffy beard and bed-head? It’s Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch

In a rare intersection of tech-geek celebrity culture and actual celebrity culture, Us Weekly on Wednesday reported that tennis star Serena Williams is dating Alexis Ohanian. You can tell this story is rock-solid because it’s attributed to “an onlooker” who spotted the pair at a gymnastics center in Los Angeles. “He called her ‘babe’ and they held hands,” the unnamed onlooker told the magazine. (If it seems like just yesterday that Williams was reported to be pregnant with Drake’s baby—well, it was.)

All of which has millions of Serena admirers asking the same question: Who the heck is Alexis Ohanian, and what does she have that Drake doesn’t?

First of all, Ohanian is a dude, not a “she.” And he’s best-known for co-founding the decidedly dude-centric social network and news site Reddit.

Ohanian, 32, is in many ways the archetypal tech bro. A University of Virginia graduate, he’s geeky and boyishly enthusiastic, handsome by tech-startup standards, and earnestly idealistic to an extent that stands out even in Silicon Valley, where everyone’s busy making the world a better place. Ohanian’s actual personal credo: “making the world suck less.” That’s like making the world a better place, but with facial hair.

Let no one speculate that Williams is dating Ohanian for his money. His net worth, according to a reliable source I’ll call “the Internet,” is in the neighborhood of $4.5 million, or approximately 3 percent of Williams’ own. That’s because he and co-founder Steve Huffman sold Reddit to Conde Nast in 2006, just a year after they launched it, and long before it blew up and became “the front page of the Internet.” Where was Justin Timberlake when Ohanian needed him?

A better theory—assuming we need a theoretical framework for what amounts to a half-baked rumor about Williams’ love life—would be that she’s attracted to his energy, charisma, and positive attitude. Dubbed “the Internet’s own cheerleader” by the New York Times, Ohanian’s is the sort of personality that tempts newspaper feature writers to substitute the verb “bounded” for “walked.” Forbes’ headline writers went ahead and elected him “Mayor of the Internet,” citing his leading role in the geek lobby that successfully opposed an ill-conceived federal anti-piracy law. The Forbes profile is a good one, for those eager to learn more about the man. But it took a John Herrman piece in BuzzFeed to correct a crucial error with respect to the scope of Ohanian’s ambition: He has actually been running for “president of the Internet.”

Ohanian’s idealism, I should note, tends more toward the “hands-off-our-free-speech” variety than what Redditors might call the “social justice warrior” mode. Ohanian has never condoned the ugly strains of racism and misogyny that thrive on the site he built. But, despite continuing to be closely involved with the site over the years, including a controversial stint as executive chairman, Ohanian hasn’t done a whole lot to stop it, either. On the other hand, he’s contributed to a long list of altruistic causes, spending time as a Kiva fellow in Armenia and leading a crowdfunding campaign for the nonprofit Black Girls Code. When he’s not raising funds, he’s doling them out as a startup investor and East Coast ambassador for the famous venture firm Y Combinator.  

Oh, and as long as we’re speculating wildly as to Ohanian’s appeal as a potential hand-holder for one of history’s greatest athletes: He’s 6-foot-5. Not that his slouchy frame would be mistaken for that of a tennis champion, but at 5-foot-9, Williams will look up to him in at least the most literal sense of the phrase.