By Katie Baker
NEW YORK (The Ringer) — “Grandkids on demand,” the tagline for a new Florida-based business called Papa, has a cheerfully dystopian ring. And so it makes sense that when the entrepreneur and venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian explains why he invested in such a company, he, too, sounds like he’s living in a dramatized, if familiar, future. “Empathy,” he says, speaking by phone from the Bay Area on a recent Thursday morning, “is not something I believe robots will be able to possess.”
In October, Initialized Capital, the early-stage VC firm Ohanian cofounded with Garry Tan in 2011, was part of a $2.4 million seed round for Papa, which connects college students with seniors looking for companionship or nonmedical assistance. The “Papa Pals,” as the designated whippersnappers are called, are like if the Boy and Girl Scouts merged with TaskRabbit: They might set up an Apple TV, provide a ride to an appointment, gofer at the grocery store, or just sit and listen. (Andrew Parker, the company’s founder, tells me that a Papa Pal recently accompanied an older client to a wedding and cut a rug on the dance floor.)
There were a number of things about Papa that made it a compelling investment. This summer, Papa’s founders went through the famous accelerator program at Y Combinator, where Ohanian first hatched the website Reddit with his cofounder Steve Huffman in 2005, and where he met Tan a few years after that. The startup is based out of Miami, which Ohanian likes: He has been outspoken about the benefits of operating outside the Silicon Valley bubble, and a Florida base is a no-brainer for any strivers in the so-called “elder tech” space. But what Ohanian keeps coming back to when he talks about Papa is that the business harnesses something—kindness, basically—that “humans are uniquely good at,” he says. “It’s something we don’t have to worry about AI automating away.”
For years, as he built, left, and rejoined Reddit and did a zillion other things on the side, Ohanian had a front-row seat to many of the thrills and chills that can come from humans being uniquely good (“good”) at things. With Reddit, he watched passionate communities form around shared interests like skin care or Phish, buzzing with the collective purpose of a hive; he also presided over a business that teemed with racism, misogyny, and snuff films. He marveled at the growth of a startup that once felt like his baby; he recoiled at, yet enabled, that baby’s maturation into a troublesome punk.
Now, Ohanian has entered a new phase of his life, one revolving around an actual baby. “He has this whole Business Dad aesthetic, this whole Business Dad philosophy,” says Kim-Mai Cutler, a partner at Initialized. “Like, being great at being an investor, being great at being supportive of companies, and then also being a great father, and having that be a very visual part of his identity.”