I feel very privileged to be part of the Design for Social Innovation (DSI) program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC where I co-teach Entrepreneurship & Collaborative Leadership with Karen Proctor to second year students who are earning their MFA in the two year program. It was really fun on Wednesday night to join all of the students in the program to hear the story of one of NYC's great entrepreneurs, Alexis Ohanian. It was part of Schuyler Brown's Guest Lecture course. Alexis' chosen title, Making the World Suck Less, really hit a chord with this crowd of future innovators. The fun part was that the class was held at the SVA Theater so that, in addition to our DSI students, we could open the event to friends, neighbors and family in the 260 seat venue. It was full.
A new friend of mine, Dave Bruscino, said it well when he described Alexis in an e-mail, "In addition to being bright, Alexis seems wise beyond his years and genuinely humble, which is a heck of a combination."
Thanks goes to Cheryl Heller Chair of DSI for supporting the event with the help of DSI Operations Manager Hila Mehr and letting it be held at the SVA Theater. However, Dawn Barber founder of the NY Tech Meetup (NYTM), gets the full credit for introducing me to Alexis at last October's NYTM when he came to announce the start of his college tour in support of his new book Without Their Permission. As soon as I heard about the tour, I jumped on the chance to make SVA part of it realizing that it was a perfect fit for my entrepreneurship students as well as Schuyler's class which combines both the 1st and 2nd year students every Wednesday night. It was great fun to officially welcome Alexis home to NYC as the last stop on what turned out to be an extended tour to many, many schools across the US and Canada between October and March.
Alexis started by walking us through his early years of learning to code and eventually creating websites for various organizations pro bono - just because it made him feel important as a young teenager. He continued by recounting his history of founding Reddit, Hipmunk, and Breadpig. He gave a lot of advice starting with his definition of entrepreneur as "French for - has ideas, does them". The most important advice could have been the Nike slogan, Just Do It, with the simple addendum "don't be afraid to suck"!
Alexis' admonition, with the help of his mascot "Courage Wolf", was equally simple and direct, "have an idea - start doing it". When he followed that gem with "haters will always hate, ignore them", it had to have been hard for anyone in the audience to not at least imagine themselves starting something, almost anything, ASAP, to see what it is like just to take a shot. He showed some great images of websites, well known today, that truly sucked when they were first launched, including both Facebook and Twitter. His point was that it takes time not to "suck". Better to get something out there and test it while you figure out how to make it work / look better - i.e. not suck.
Alexis told a number of inspiring stories of people who had an idea but didn't have all the skills yet got there anyway through persistence and resilience. One amazing story was about 14 year old Atlanta entrepreneur Maya Penn who started Maya's Ideas Shop on the web. Maya has a tremendous following today. Another story was that of Brandon Stanton who didn't know how to use a camera but took the time, lots of it, to practice / learn his craft. Brandon is now the creator of the highly successful website and book Humans of New York.
Alexis' most important message was taken right from the title of his book, "you don't need anyone's permission to try". His basic premise is simply, given the level of connectivity that we have in this world today, that allows anyone to reach the majority of the world's population with an idea, there has never been a better time to validate that idea when it can be done so inexpensively.
After Alexis' riveting presentation Schuyler joined him in a conversation. Schuyler, besides teaching in the DSI program at SVA, is a "trend forecaster and communications expert comfortable with entrepreneurs and global businesses". She advises some of the world's largest brands but clearly demonstrated her ability to connect with entrepreneurs in bringing out even more nuggets from Alexis.
One final item was a gift from Alexis to SVA - a new logo for the school - drawing on his theme of a cute mascot for each of his startups to date. The SVA "person" joins the Reddit "alien", the Hipmunk "hip chipmunk" and the Breadpig "pig" in the line of Ohanian masterpieces.
A few more pics from the evening.