Serena Williams’ Birth Complications Changed Alexis Ohanian’s Perspective on Paternity Leave

February 8, 2018, 12:30 PM UTC

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian announced Wednesday that he would be stepping down from his daily role at the company (he will continue to serve on its board). While part of his plans involve taking on a larger role at Initialized Capital, the VC firm he co-founded with Garry Tan, he also says that the decision involved the “promise he made to this little poppy seed.” Ohanian is, of course, referring to his daughter with Serena Williams, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. After the birth of Alexis—or Junior, as he calls her—”all these dad reflexes kicked in,” he tells Fortune.

The sub-Reddit r/DadReflexes is full of fun videos of fathers saving their kids from mischief, but Ohanian is referring to the reflex that triggered a newfound “superpower and purpose” when his daughter was born. He credits his company’s paternity policy—16 paid weeks—with providing the perspective that ultimately led to his decision to step back. “I was a believer before, but now I whole-heartedly believe that every single dad should take it.” Having that time off proved especially crucial because of the complications Williams faced during childbirth. “That really put into perspective how important these policies are.”

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Ohanian has unwittingly become a role model for exhausted founders, he says; after he took leave, many of the men he mentors said they now feel they have “permission” to do the same. He did, however, notice a double standard during his time off: While speculation swirled about whether his tennis pro wife would come back to work, there was never any discussion about his desire to return to his role at Reddit. Granted, Williams is an athlete who had a difficult birth—but he still made note of the differences in expectations.

Ohanian is also acutely aware of the challenges faced by non-white-male founders, a problem that hits closer to home with the birth of Junior—though he points out that he knew it was an issue “before I had a black daughter.” He believes that using software to source deal flow, a process that Initialized is in the process of implementing (he declines to give specifics), will be hugely helpful in getting rid of some of the unconscious biases that have taken root in the VC world. Truly fixing the issue, however, will take more than automation. “It’s about finding those people who are adamant about solving a problem and giving them the network and resources to succeed,” he says. “I need to make the world better for my little person.”



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