Reddit's Alexis Ohanian On His Push For Paternity Leave

Aug 18, 2019
Originally published on August 18, 2019 6:03 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking a lot on this program lately about work and family and choices - how working parents are maneuvering to keep all the moving parts of their lives functioning together. Today we want to talk about another key element - fathers, more specifically, paternity leave. There's a growing body of research about the benefits of men taking time off after the birth or adoption of a child, and yet the research also says that 76% of American fathers are back to work within a week. My next guest wants to change that.

Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder of Reddit and the venture capital firm Initialized Capital, and he also happens to be married to one of the world's most high-profile working women out there, tennis champion Serena Williams. The two welcomed a daughter in 2017, but you may remember that Serena experienced life-threatening complications. Ohanian wound up taking 16 weeks of paternity leave to care for them both, and he's now a vocal advocate of other fathers doing the same. He wrote an article about this published in The New York Times a few days ago.

And Alexis Ohanian is with us now. Thank you so much for talking to us.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Oh, thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So you mentioned in your article that Reddit already offered paternity leave, but it wasn't your idea. And you say you never thought much about it. So why did Reddit offer it? Did you feel it was competitively necessary? Was it good PR? As you point out, it certainly is not the law in the United States.

OHANIAN: Yeah. Well, you know, at the time, when I came back to help lead the Reddit turnaround in 2014, there was literally no HR team. There was no policy. And one of our early hires, a woman Katelin Holloway came in. And she brought with her a sort of big old book of policy guidelines for the company. And when she presented the 16 weeks, I didn't think much of it other than, OK, that seems reasonable because the war for talent is so great in tech. Benefits like paid leave are one of the big levers that we all, well, basically have to have in order to convince folks to not only join but also retain them in the long term.

MARTIN: And as I mentioned, and as many people remember, Serena Williams suffered serious complications, which I have to say sparked a whole other conversation about the state of maternal health in this country, including a whole - the whole issue of racial disparity.

OHANIAN: Especially among women of color.

MARTIN: Especially among women of color. But - so that's another issue. But - forgive me, I have to ask. Do you honestly think if she had not been so seriously ill, do you think you would have taken your whole leave?

OHANIAN: Absolutely. And I know that because I had already made the plans. I remember asking Katelin about a month before Olympia was due to put me through the process just like any other employee at the company. And at the time I really just thought, I'm doing this because I know I'm never going to get this time again. And why not?

MARTIN: And you point out that that is unusual. I mean, you say in your piece - and I think the research is very clear - that even when companies offer paid leave, men don't take advantage of it. They certainly don't take their full leave. Why is that?

OHANIAN: Well, there is a stigma around it. And for me, I knew I had to do it. Look - leaders have to lead. And as a leader within the organization, I wanted to give cover for everyone - men and women - to take full advantage of the policy because, at the end of the day, I think that that stigma remains until enough of us - and then I do mean in particular like male executives - can lead by example and show that we can take this time, be away from the office, be there for our families and still be just as driven, still be just as motivated and not have it be perceived as a weakness.

And so we've had three new parents actually at Initialized - three dads who all were on leave at the same time. And for each of them, they chose to create a different plan for themselves that made sense for their family. So if they wanted to be off for a month and then use the next three months' worth of leave by just taking off every Thursday, Friday, great. And I think that dynamic really supports the families and lets these employees, when they're in the office, actually do their best work.

MARTIN: You know, I can see where somebody's listening to our conversation might be saying, well, I mean, of course you took leave - you're the boss. I mean, of course you took leave - I mean, Serena Williams, excuse me. But I can also see where it cuts the other way. I can also see where somebody might say, well, I can't leave, I'm the boss. It's not just my family depending on me. My employees are depending on me. My shareholders are depending on me. So I guess what I'm asking you is, do you have some advice for fathers to help them make this happen, particularly for people who, as you point out, are afraid they might lose their jobs?

OHANIAN: There are really important protections that are in place. When it comes to taking this kind of leave, We don't want to see it affect anyone's job, a man or a woman, right? And so I really believe that this is a cultural shift that is happening. And look. I've been a CEO. I run a company to this day. And we work with dozens of some really amazing CEOs within our Initialized portfolio. And I would give all of them and anyone listening the same advice, which is do what you need to do in order to support both your family and your business, your startup, your company because the two are far more intertwined than I think historically we've given them credit for. And the reality is doing what's best for your family and for your sort of personal well-being is oftentimes actually also going to be what's best for the business.

MARTIN: That's Alexis Ohanian. He's the co-founder of Reddit and the venture capital firm Initialized Capital. Mr. Ohanian, thanks so much for talking with us.

OHANIAN: Oh, thank you very much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.