‘Not an easy decision.’ How Alexis Ohanian justified his departure from the Reddit board

Tech entrepreneur and investor Alexis Ohanian said in an Instagram Live video broadcast this weekend that he didn’t expect to garner as much public attention as he did last week upon announcing his resignation from the board of Reddit, the online community platform he co-founded 15 years ago.

Amid more than a week of global Black Lives Matter protests and collective action following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ohanian announced on Friday he would resign from Reddit’s board, calling for his replacement to be black. Ohanian has had varying degrees of control over the company since selling it to publishing company Condé Nast in 2006, but he hasn’t been involved in day-to-day operations since 2018.

This weekend Ohanian’s wife, professional tennis player Serena Williams, hosted a discussion with Ohanian as part of her “Serena Saturday” Instagram Live series. She described her husband’s announcement as “shocking to everyone,” including herself, and asked him to explain what motivated him.

“This was not an easy decision at all,” Ohanian said in the livestream. “Upon reflecting on the state of where our country is right now, I thought about what I could do beyond a social media post, beyond a donation, but really lead. … we need diversity at the highest levels of business, now more than ever. And I say that because it will be in the best interests of Reddit for that to happen. It’s in the best interests of every company for that to happen.”

When Williams asked Ohanian why it was important to him that a black candidate fill his vacated seat, he made the distinction between a board seat and an executive position. Appointing a board member is not the same thing as hiring an employee, he explained, and the board’s role doesn’t extend to operations—but they do hold the executive team accountable for their own and thereby the company’s actions, he said.

“That board role, in this case it’s one out of five board seats, comes with a vote,” Ohanian said. “That one vote is a chance to stand up for customers who aren’t in that room, to stand up for investors who aren’t in that room.”

In 2018 just 16.1% of board seats in the Fortune 500 were held by nonwhite individuals, according to the Alliance for Board Diversity.

Ohanian, who is also a venture capitalist, went on to explain that his decision wasn’t just about the impact it would have on Reddit and its stakeholders. He hopes to set an example for the broader tech industry and inspire other companies to realize they need to step up and make changes, to diversify representation, too.

“Resignation can be an act of leadership,” Ohanian said.

Ohanian also shared how he is motivated by his own legacy in the eyes of his and Williams’ 2-year-old black daughter, Alexis Olympia. On Friday, he also announced he would donate gains on his Reddit stock “to serve the black community, chiefly to curb racial hat,” beginning with $1 to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Campaign.

“I wanted to be able to answer that question from her with the clearest conscience,” Ohanian said. “I wanted to be able to say something and do something that had weight to it.”

While Ohanian’s resignation is a prominent gesture that may help alter the course of Reddit and other companies that prioritize black representation, it has been described as insufficient or too little, too late by some. Alexis Sobel Fitts writes in Jezebel that Reddit, which Ohanian made “his name and a large amount of money from,” has long been a hotbed for hate speech and racism, among other harmful and abusive content. Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao (best known for her sexual discrimination lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins) resigned when various Reddit leaders failed to align with her approach to curbing such content, which continues to thrive on the platform.

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