"He was a leader," recalled Nesbitt Brown, a biochemist who spent 38 years in research and development at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before volunteering with science students at Howard High, including Ohanian. "He was inquisitive, too. He always had questions."
Signs of his natural business sense came out naturally. What might be considered his first startup, well before reddit, was a business he launched in high school building websites for nonprofits. There were the more typical jobs, too — he practiced upselling as a waiter at Pizza Hut. He was paid to sit for hours in the now-defunct chain CompUSA, periodically running demonstrations of software and hardware, and surfing the Web the rest of the time.
"I can't tell you how many demos I gave to no one," Ohanian wrote in his book. "But damn if that wasn't a fabulous way to start public speaking." He did well enough to get a job offer from a customer who apparently didn't know Ohanian was just 14 at the time.
He also absorbed business lessons from his father, who gradually saw his travel agent commissions decline so steadily that when one of the last blows came, he responded with a fax laden with expletives in magic marker. Ohanian saw the disruptions that forced his father to adapt his business, and he learned how powerful they could be.
"I knew I wanted to be a disrupter," Ohanian wrote.
Sill, Ohanian didn't see himself as a future entrepreneur, even when he started at Virginia.
"There were definitely kids who had these kinds of ambitions, or at least more explicitly had these ambitions, that I just did not have back then," he said in an interview.
It was Huffman who helped spur the entrepreneurial bug, bringing Ohanian along one spring break to hear a presentation by Paul Graham, a British computer programmer who co-founded Y Combinator, a Boston business incubator and venture capital investor.
Reddit wasn't their first project, though. Their big idea was My Mobile Menu (aptly known as MMM), which college students could use to order take-out food via cellphones (before the days of smartphones). They pitched their idea to Graham, and he rejected it — but ended up inviting them to join Y Combinator in Boston after they graduated.
The basis for reddit came from Graham, who suggested they create something that could be "the front page of the Internet." The pair ran with the idea.
While Huffman wrote code and put out technical fires, Ohanian was emailing users, sweet-talking reporters and slapping reddit stickers all over the Boston area. When multiple offers came in to acquire the site, it was Ohanian who handled the negotiations.
"Would reddit have worked without him? I often wonder about that, and I don't think so," Huffman said. "It's hard to nail down what exactly was his influence on reddit, but it's all over the place."
Friends wondered and worried as Ohanian slept on a mattress on the floor of an apartment in Medford, Mass., toiling to build the site. Amid all the work, his mother was diagnosed with brain cancer and told she had little time. That Ohanian nonetheless pressed on with reddit was not a surprise, though he spent time away from the venture when her condition worsened, after the sale.
"For a lot of people, they will pursue an idea to a point and if there is too much resistance or fear of rejection of an idea, they will back off," said Jonathan Swyers, another of Ohanian's childhood friends. "With Alexis, there is none of that."
Still, Femiano was shocked to learn that Ohanian, then barely 23, had brokered the multimillion-dollar sale to Conde Nast a year and a half after his graduation from Virginia. The sale price was never disclosed, but friends noticed a difference in his clothes and the way he carried himself right away. He upgraded his father's Washington Redskins season tickets at FedEx Field, soon bought his first car, a Volkswagen Golf, and in 2011, purchased a million-dollar condo in Brooklyn Heights with riverfront views of Lower Manhattan.
His parents, meanwhile, knew their son was capable of as much, if not more, Chris Ohanian said. "It didn't matter what it was, he would apply himself and run with it."
Anke Ohanian survived to see her son's success, though she spent much of her final months mostly paralyzed and unable to speak. She died in March 2008 and remains an inspiration to her son.
In dedicating his book to his parents, Ohanian wrote: "I wish you were here to read this, Mom. May this book, my life, and my persistent smile all honor you."
Now, Ohanian's mission is to motivate the Internet entrepreneurs of the future. He spent much of 2011 campaigning against a pair of anti-piracy proposals in Congress that would have limited Internet free speech. The advocacy earned him the title "Mayor of the Internet," according to Forbes.
He is on a nationwide tour to promote his book and the idea that nobody needs permission to use the Internet to solve problems, or, as Ohanian puts it, "make the world suck less." It included stops at the Mount Washington entrepreneur event and at the University of Maryland, College Park, in November; Ohanian will speak to Johns Hopkins University students Tuesday.