Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian Sr. took the extraordinary step of resigning his position on the Reddit board on June 5 in a move that could be interpreted as an effort to encourage companies to increase the hiring of minority board members. Will his sacrifice be viewed as an effective way to reach the goal of increasing minority board membership?
Coming in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police and the country reevaluating its positions on racial injustice and police brutality, the personal sentiment behind Ohanian’s action is understandable. In a blog post, Ohanian said, “I have resigned as a member of the Reddit board, I have urged them to fill my position with a black candidate, and I will use future gains on my Reddit stock to serve the black community, chiefly to curb racial hate.”
He also stated, “I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now.”
Those statements suggest that Ohanian was “leading by example,” but what message should directors glean from Ohanian’s actions?
Let’s be clear: minority board candidates would not want to become a member of a board because white directors felt that resigning their position was the only way minority candidates could gain an opportunity. While it is clear that was not Ohanian’s intent, those who oppose diverse boards might interpret his resignation that way. That’s not what this is about.
Clearly, Ohanian wanted to make an immediate impact. In fact, just five days later, the Reddit board selected a black man, Michael Siebel, CEO of Y Combinator, to replace Ohanian. That the board honored his recommendation to replace him with a black candidate suggests that he had significant influence with Reddit board members.
By giving up his board seat, Ohanain likely felt it could inspire others to demonstrate similar acts of commitment to eliminating the inequities in minority board membership. He likely wanted to show that his commitment to doing the right thing was so genuine that he gave up his seat in favor of giving a deserving black person an opportunity. He should be commended for that.
Unfortunately, giving up a lucrative and influential board seat is a huge ask for any director. It is also an act of leadership that not many people would follow. It’s unclear how many board resignations over this issue would result in the appointment of new minority board members. Therefore, Ohanian’s resignation might be more symbolic than prescriptive in terms of providing a sustainable solution to increasing the number of minority board members. We’ll soon see how this plays out.
While there is plenty of room for debate, it might have been just as effective for Ohanian to have remained on his board and found a way to convince all of the Reddit directors to be as committed to diversifying the board as he appears to be. By resigning, Ohanian subtracted an influential voice on the board that could have been a strong advocate for diversity initiatives regarding board membership and other areas, such as hiring, promotion and supplier contracting. In the battle against racial inequities, all of those issues are important.
Corporate board members have the power to change their company’s culture to begin addressing racial inequities across many areas. Directors can select a CEO who will speak out and set the tone for diversity and inclusion efforts to succeed. Directors can insist on a new code of conduct, standards of excellence and systems of accountability that can change the corporate culture to be more fair and inclusive for everyone. Directors can develop and implement policies and procedures to ensure that diverse board candidates receive an equal opportunity when board seats open up. Directors can make a difference if they are committed to making change.
It seems that Ohanian was committed to making change happen, and made it a point to resign in order to do it. Was there an opportunity to add more diverse members to the Reddit board without Ohanian having to sacrifice his position? We can only wonder if the Reddit board had that conversation before Ohanian stepped down.