Fatherhood is hard, even when you’re the founder of a billion-dollar company and married to one of the world’s most accomplished athletes.
The months after his daughter Olympia was born nearly two years ago were among the most trying in Alexis Ohanian’s life, says the Reddit and Initialized Capital cofounder, despite all the advantages he and his wife Serena Williams enjoy. So much so that it pains him to think about what it would have been like doing it without the benefit of parental leave.
Ohanian recently partnered with Dove Men+Care to help extend that opportunity to all American parents. Together they’re collecting signatures for the Pledge for Paternity Leave and taking their fight to the highest levels of government. We caught up with Ohanian to discuss the campaign, what it’s like to share parenting duties with a tennis superstar, their Father’s Day plans, and his cheesiest dad joke.
Fast Company: What is the Pledge for Paternity Leave and how did you get involved?
Alexis Ohanian: I’ve been talking about paid family leave since I was just about to go on it myself a couple of years ago and continued after I got to spend those crucial months with my wife and daughter. That’s when I started to meet with other allies who had been fighting for this to become federal policy in the United States, which is the last country in the developed world without a paid family leave policy.
Only one out of five dads in the U.S. have access to paid leave, and far fewer have the ability to take it, and we want to change that. Dove Men+Care reached out because they have a long history of supporting dads, and saw this as an opportunity to put their money where their values are. Originally they put up a $1 million fund for dads to apply for the chance to get funding to take paternity leave, even though their companies didn’t offer it.
Now we’re looking toward October when I’ll put on a suit, go down to Washington, meet with folks on the left and the right, in the House and the Senate, and hopefully bring 100,000 signatures on this pledge to show just how many Americans care about this issue. We’re also building a community in a Facebook group, Advocates for Paternity Leave, to share funny GIFs but also to organize, get more people to sign the pledge, and encourage them to reach out to their representatives.
FC: Why Facebook? There’s this other platform out there you might want to check out called Reddit. Seems like a good place to build communities around these sorts of causes.
AO: [Laughs.] There are some amazing groups on Reddit, but when it comes to creating a community for a specific issue, Facebook’s international reach can’t be beat. As much as I love Reddit, the site still only serves the English-speaking world, and we’re going to where the users are.
FC: Speaking of social media, you’ve railed against “hustle porn” culture in the past. How are you using your platform to promote those who show off how hard they work at being a parent?
AO: This is basically a by-product of the bar being set so incredibly low for dads; we celebrate celebrity fathers just for acknowledging they have children. The bar needs to be higher, and the way we get there is by parents—and dads in particular—talking about and casually showing themselves doing dad things.
Even those silly dad reflexes GIFs are great, because they are a medium for us to see and enjoy these moments of paternal joy that we wouldn’t see anywhere else; you’d never see a movie about it, you won’t see it in men’s magazines, you wouldn’t even talk about it with your buddies at poker night. With smartphones we can now do the storytelling that dads couldn’t do as easily, and that’s a really good thing.
I call out hustle porn for its BS and celebrate founders who are taking care of themselves and spending time with their families because it’s the right business decision. I say this as a founder of a billion-dollar company, and as an early stage investor. At the end of the day, the greatest business outcomes come with sacrifice and discipline and hard work, but you and your people still have to do the work, and there are diminishing marginal returns in output.
The highest performing people in the world value rest and self-care. I want the best possible outcomes for my company and those I invest in; they just happen to be tied into the personal outcomes of founders and employees. It’s an easy argument to make because I see the returns every day.
FC: On a more personal note, how do you and Serena divide responsibilities, especially with your busy travel schedules?
AO: I tease her because I’m still waiting for Olympia to spend a night away from her mother. She’s 2 in September and still hasn’t spent a single night away from her; she travels with mom, I basically schedule my life around theirs, and I try not to be away for more than a week or so. I know she bears more of the responsibilities, especially when I’m gone, but when we’re together, we try to split as much as possible. It’s never perfect, and frankly Olympia is like Serena’s mini-me, so I try not to take it personally when she wants to spend more time with mom. We’re lucky because there’s always an auntie around, there’s always someone around to support us.
FC: Speaking of being lucky, what has being a father taught you about your own privilege?
AO: For all the advantages we have, the time right after Olympia was born was such a trying and traumatic time because of all my wife’s health complications. I never could have imagined someone going through all that we did without the peace of mind of paid leave like we had, and yet countless Americans do that. It solidified the importance of this issue for me, because I know how fortunate we are, and its heartbreaking to think how many American families have to go through some version of this and have an existential fear of losing their job or not being there for their family when their family needs it most.
FC: How are you celebrating Father’s Day this year?
AO: We’re actually going to be in Italy. The one big perk of the tennis schedule is that it takes my wife all over the world. Olympia has more passport stamps at two than I probably had at 22.
FC: A couple years ago the world learned of your wife’s pregnancy through a Snapchat message she meant to send to you and accidentally shared publicly. Should we be keeping our eyes on her Snapchat account for another announcement anytime soon?
AO: My wife has a really great Snapchat account to follow, so you should definitely follow it, but no. No more surprise snaps.
FC: Can we finish with your best dad joke?
AO: Olympia is too young to eye-roll when I tell dad jokes, so I don’t have a great arsenal, but if you ask my wife, she’d say most of my jokes are dad jokes. Here’s a good one from r/dadjokes: What do you call fake potatoes?
FC: [Eye roll.]
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of people who applied for paternity leave funding.