The Thiel Fellowship application opens with a challenge: “tell us how you would like to change the world.” The wording may sound bombastic, but the Thiel Foundation is not playing games. $100,000, and the chance to devote two years to an independent project, is at stake. Applicants must write two sentences to answer each of the following: what do you want to accomplish in the next 10 years? Two years? Three months? The punch-line: in order to apply, they must not have reached their 20th birthdays. Some students arrive straight out of high school, while others put their college studies on hold. In most cases, the winners board a plane to San Francisco and quickly immerse themselves in its culture of entrepreneurship.
When the Thiel Fellowship began in 2010, founder Peter Thiel caused a stir for his denunciation of the traditional educational system. “So many students are not getting the jobs they need to repay their debts, are moving back in with their parents, and the contract both signed up for is being revealed as false,” he told The American Interest magazine. Best known as the cofounder of PayPal and Facebook’s first investor, Thiel is a self-made billionaire who has started more companies than most people would dare to dream of. Though he followed a standard high-power educational path, with two degrees from Stanford University, the mounting college debt phenomenon and the lack of innovation outside the computer technology industry prompted him to advocate for an alternative model.
Yale has seen four students drop out to become Thiel Fellows. Selected from a pool of more than 400 applicants, all were part of the initial 2011 class of fellows. Their work demonstrates the possibilities of the alternative career path the fellowship promotes: Daniel Friedman started an online school for web development, Paul Gu designed an online platform for investing in people, Darren Zhu created a software to help diagnose cancer and David Luan ’13 has worked on improving robots’ understanding of their environments. All of them saw their Thiel funding run out this past summer. And while Luan reenrolled at Yale and graduated last spring, it does not look like the other fellows will be returning to college any time soon.
THE DECISION TO DROP
Those who press “submit” on the application are a self-selecting group. As any of the Yale fellows will tell you, independence and an inexhaustible drive are virtual prerequisites. For Gu, who learned of the fellowship through an online article, applying meant reconsidering the Wall Street finance job he had been on track to do for years. “I knew I wanted to try becoming an entrepreneur. This was the least risky way to do that,” he said. He realized the $100,000 would give him the chance to kick around ideas, and to make mistakes without the fear of ending up broke.
Gu’s computer programmer parents were not thrilled by his choice, but in many ways it was a calculated one: in Gu’s words, the start-up world offers a “level of success that’s unreachable in any other industry” — both financially and in terms of visible impact on the world. Indeed, after the high-profile success of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, what Gu termed the “post-Facebook generation” is increasingly populated by people who envision themselves changing the world while lounging around Silicon Valley.
It was on a plane from New York to Silicon Valley that Thiel and his coworkers first developed the idea to start a fellowship to encourage scientific and technological innovation. Looking around the San Francisco Bay Area, it was clear that people could rise to the top of the tech world without college degrees. With national college debt totaling over a trillion dollars (more than national credit card debt, according to Thiel Foundation President Jonathan Cain) the value of higher education is now up for discussion. “We wanted to reach promising young people before they become so locked into one particular path in their education or in their career,” Cain said. “Some ideas exist within a moment of time, and if you don’t act on them at the right moment, you may lose that opportunity.”
For some students, project proposals may not be fully formed, but the drive to see what they can create is enough of a motivator. Zhu, who was on track to study chemistry or molecular biology, wanted to break away from a structured academic environment in order to explore how scientific advancements can translate into real technologies. He already had extensive laboratory research experience, so “it was a good time for me to jump out and see the other side,” he said.
Breaking away from Yale was by no means a small decision, but Zhu, Gu and Friedman — the three Yale fellows interviewed — were ready by the time decisions came in. On the Friday they received the calls, Zhu was on the balcony of Harkness Tower, having just completed his weekly carillon ring. Gu and Friedman were both in the “Zoo,” Yale’s computer science lab. Gu wrote in an email, “We pretty much jumped into the air to chest-bump and promptly dropped our phones with the Thiel Foundation still on the line.”
THE ROUGH START
Though the entire pool of Thiel winners includes one entrepreneur who formed a company at 12 and a techie who worked at MIT labs at 13, most fellows arrive with a less clear sense of the professional world. Some floundering is inevitable. As Gu recalled: “I spent the first six months drifting from idea to idea.” Though the Thiel Foundation provides fellows with an extensive network of mentors — who advise them on everything from intellectual property to employee recruitment — the program is largely hands-off. “Most types of challenges that I dealt with up to that point of my life had been a challenge within the confines of a very specific system,” Gu noted. In the start-up world, the rules were less clear.
While Gu acknowledged that he had not been prepared to become a working professional, he said two more years of theoretical training in university would have made no a difference. “One thing that’s really valuable in a liberal arts setting is learning to think critically…but you can also learn that on the job,” said Zhu, who spent the beginning of his first fellowship year working on a robotics project with Luan. He explained that a job forces you to always ask: what is the best way to achieve a given task?
Sometimes, however, students are lacking in more technical abilities. Friedman spent a few months at a venture capitalist firm in New York before shifting to a product development studio in order to “slow down and spend a bit of time building skills,” he said. He taught himself how to code on the job, and it’s the pressures of a work environment that pushed him to do so. In practice, he said, you learn through time constraints: “a deadline, a real person evaluating your work.”
Looming over their heads was the possibility of failure — with a $100,000 safety net. According to Gu, eliminating the financial risk allowed them to undertake endeavors they might never have otherwise.
OFF THE GROUND
Zhu used Craigslist to find the cheap, four-bedroom house he and seven other Thiel Fellows shared during their first year in California. While celebrating move-in day with a game of midnight street soccer, they befriended the men parked outside: Steve Jobs’s security guards. In fact, they discovered that the Apple tycoon lived down the block, and Google co-founder Larry Page was just around the corner.
But Zhu is quick to stress that the start-up life is not all movies chalk it up to be. It is “highly volatile and incredibly uncertain,” he said in an e-mail. When the pharmaceutical industry began to cut funding for research and development, the lack of capital made Zhu’s original robotics project untenable. Instead, he turned to research on microorganisms, with the goal of improving diagnostic methods. The switch involved nothing short of building his own lab with an additional grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He had to be resourceful, finding an industrial workspace and picking up resources from liquidated companies. But as he ran into additional roadblocks, he shifted his focus to software. Progress has been fast: he has already developed a tool to detect malignant cancer cells in tissue sample.
Friedman and Gu have both caught on to the Thiel tenet that human capital is important. After meeting his co-founder, Darrell Silver, Friedman joked they spent a few months “dating,” figuring out whether they had similar goals and compatible skill sets. The website they eventually created, Thinkful, was inspired by his own experience learning to code. Paying customers can sign up for web development classes, through which they are guided by a personal mentor.
Thinkful transitioned from a little-known start-up to a full-fledged online education program in little more than a day. A month after it opened its virtual doors to a handful of new students, Friedman and Silver read that Citibank was laying off over 10,000 people. Within four hours, the team offered a free class to former Citi employees, and an hour later news of the opportunity was at the top of the Hacker News web page. TechCrunch, a prominent news source, published an article about it at midnight that same day. “Darrell and I were still at the office when the TechCrunch story ran, watching our real-time analytics as more people signed up than had been on our site in history,” Friedman wrote in an e-mail.
He is surprised by how quickly the online education system became a success. “A year ago, we were two guys in a room with no students,” Friedman said. Now, his company has a 60-person mentor team and has serviced over 500 people. Thinkful became the first Thiel Fellow company in which Thiel would invest.
Friedman is not the only one who has seen large sums rolling in. To date, Gu’s company, Upstart, has garnered $7.8 million in venture capital, with the help of Thiel’s company and others. Investors pledge financial support to people based on their online profiles, and in return they receive a percentage of each person’s future income. Like the Thiel Fellowship, the system allows people to take risks without accumulating crippling debt. So far, a little over 100 people have raised over two million dollars through his program. Gu himself ended up with $25,000 after creating a profile in which a smiling photo of him seated in front of a garage door is accompanied by the statement, “I’m looking to build products that make clever use of numbers to improve the world.” Though his main resume points are impressive, his profile’s tone is casual. He describes his tumultuous early childhood after moving from China, and notes in the quick facts section that “a side-goal of mine is to publish an essay on moral philosophy.” Behind it all is another calculation: in Gu’s book, exchanging a small percent of his future income for cash today is just good economics.
THE EDUCATION MODEL
Though college degrees still factor into success, as well-demonstrated by their inclusion in Gu’s projected-income calculator, Cain suggests that learning models are going to look very different just ten years down the road. Though the Thiel Fellowship only helps a handful of people each year, that has translated into the creation of over 50 companies and — after much publicity — started a conversation about the pitfalls of traditional career paths. Both Cain and the fellows admitted that the fellowships are not for everyone, but there’s a glamour that comes from entering the start-up world, especially if you’re under 20 years old. The appeal is multiplied by the young office vibe that Paul captured when he said that work and play no longer exist in distinct spaces; his coworkers are his roommates, so they occasionally play beer pong in the office and often discuss business at home. While the fellows’ former classmates were deciding a major, they were analyzing real-world data sets.
Apprenticeships have been around for centuries, but they are now being adapted to the digital age — in ways that are beneficial for young people. In the start-up world, “there’s not a lot of pre-set hierarchy or as much existing bias. It’s much more meritocratic, in that people can prove how much value they can add,” Gu said.
Though Friedman suggested that Yale, and other elite institutions, would always be safe, it is hard to say whether the university will support an increasingly outdated model of education. Alena Gribskov, the program director of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, pointed out that there is an important place for entrepreneurship on campus. The increasingly popular academic-year Venture Creation Program and summer fellowships allow students who do not have $100,000 to test out their ideas before taking the risk of working on them full-time.
For Cain, the Thiel Foundation’s work is ultimately not about institutions of learning, but about the students they aim to help. “Blindly doing what society tells you works even more poorly than it did before,” he said. “It’s important to think clearly and rigorously about what you want in life.”
Correction: Oct. 21
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that participants in the company Upstart have raised over 200 million dollars. In fact, they have raised approximately two million dollars.