The young thinkers paid to quit college, chase dreams
Connor Zwick, 19, a Thiel Fellowship recipient, cuts a profile for a smartphone game that he hopes will revolutionise mobile gaming, in San Francisco Photo: The New York Times
Eden Full should be back at Princeton by now. She should be hustling to class, hitting the books, acing tests. In short, she should be climbing that old-school ladder towards a coveted spot among America's future elite.
She isn't doing any of that. Instead, Full, as bright and poised and ambitious as the next ivy-leaguer, has done something extraordinary for a Princetonian. She has dropped out.
It wasn't the exorbitant cost of college. (In total, about $55,000 a year.) She says she simply received a better offer — and, perhaps, a shot at a better education.
Christopher Olah, 19, a Thiel Fellowship recipient, with a 3D printer and printed objects he designed, in Toronto. Photo: The New York Times
Full, 20, is part of one of the most unusual experiments in higher education today. It rewards smart, young people for not going to college and, instead, diving into the "real world" of science, technology and business.
The idea isn't nuts. After all, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out, and they did OK — to put it mildly.
Their kind of success is rare, degree or no degree. Gates and Jobs changed the world. Full wants to as well, and she's in a hurry. She has built a low-cost solar panel and is starting to test it in Africa.
An undated handout photo of Laura Deming, a Thiel Fellowship recipient, at age 6, with her grandmother, who inspired her work on anti-aging technology, and younger brother. Photo: Family photo via The New York Times
"I was antsy to get out into the world and execute on my ideas," she says.
At a time when the value of a college degree is being called into question, and when job prospects for many new graduates are grimmer than they've been in years, perhaps it's no surprise to see a not-back-to-school movement spring up. What is surprising is where it's springing up and who's behind it.
The push, which is luring a handful of select students away from the likes of Princeton, Harvard and MIT, is the brainchild of Peter H. Thiel, 44, a billionaire and freethinker with a remarkable record in Silicon Valley.
Eden Full, 20, a Thiel Fellowship recipient, with her rotating solar panel, which she calls the SunSaluter, near her home in Oakland, California. Photo: The New York Times
In 1998, during the dot-com boom, Thiel gambled on a company that eventually became PayPal, the giant of online payments. More recently, he got in early on a little startup called Facebook.
Since 2010, he has been bankrolling people under 20 who want to find the next big thing — provided that they don't look for it in a college classroom. His offer is this: $US50,000 ($47,000) a year for two years, few questions asked. Just no college, unless a class is helpful for your Thiel project.
A cool hundred grand, no strings attached? Unsurprisingly, it is harder to get a Thiel Fellowship than it is to get into Princeton. Thiel (Stanford '89, Stanford law '92) has grabbed headlines with his outlandish offer. Less has been said about the handful of plucky people who have actually managed to snag one of his fellowships in the hope of becoming the next Gates or Jobs. The first Thiel fellows are now in their second year of the program. Twenty new fellows were selected this US summer.
Applications for 2013 are not yet being accepted; the due date will be posted in fall at ThielFellowship.org. Candidates must be under 20 when they apply.
The final step is typical of Silicon Valley: applicants get two-and-a-half minutes to pitch their ideas to would-be mentors, most of them successful entrepreneurs.
A recent CNBC documentary about the fellowship, "20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow", showed the range of those pitches. One young woman proposed a novel curriculum for students overseas and apologised for being flustered at the podium. Another ignored the instructions and spoke from the middle of the stage, TED-style. Then they and the others waited for would-be mentors in the audience to ask more questions.
Over the past two years, 44 Thiel fellows have been chosen after layers of reviews by 15 to 20 people. They don't exactly represent a cross-section of the nation. Most of these young people are white or Asian, and men. Only four are women. Applications have come in from 42 countries, from Bhutan to Ethiopia to Guatemala, but only six fellows have been selected from outside the United States — four from Canada, one from Britain and one from Russia. A quarter of applicants apply directly from high school or home schooling.
Full was studying mechanical engineering at Princeton when she applied, hoping to develop a hardy, low-cost solar panel that follows the sun's path. She calls it the SunSaluter. She is starting to test the latest iteration in Kirindi, Uganda, and Karagwe, Tanzania.
She left Princeton after her sophomore year, and she says the learning curve has been steep.
"I spent the first year of the fellowship learning a lot about the solar industry, what it takes to get a product to market, what I'm good at," she says. "The timing was perfect."
But testing the SunSaluter in Kenya, as she did earlier, offered unexpected lessons. Local children played with it, trying to unscrew the bolts. And Full, who is Asian-Canadian, was an object of fascination in villages.
"In the real world," she says, "you don't know what's going to happen."
She has had to learn to depend on the cooperation of strangers — no small feat for a woman who is used to talking fast and moving faster.
"One of the most important lessons I've learned is you have to be pretty flexible," she says. "Some days, I just want to go back to college."
Full is friends with another Thiel fellow, Laura Deming, 18. Deming is clearly brilliant. When she was 12, her family moved to San Francisco from New Zealand so she could work with Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular biologist who studies ageing. When Deming was 14, the family moved again, this time to the Boston area, so she could study at MIT.
"Families of Olympic-calibre athletes make these kinds of sacrifices all the time," says Tabitha Deming, Laura's mother. "When we lived nearby in Boston, we were lucky to see her once a month. She never came home for weekends."
John Deming, Laura's father, graduated from Brandeis University at the age of 35 but disdains formal education at every level. His daughter was home-schooled.
"I can't think of a worse environment than school if you want your kids to learn how to make decisions, manage risk and take responsibility for their choices," Deming, an investor, wrote in an email. "Rather than sending them to school, turn your kids loose on the world. Introduce them to the rigours of reality, the most important of which is earning your own way."
He added, "I detest American so-called 'education'."
His daughter's quest to slow ageing was spurred by her maternal grandmother, Bertie Deming, 85, who began having neuromuscular problems a decade ago. Laura, a first-year fellow, now spends her days combing medical journals, seeking researchers who are worth venture-capital funding.
"I'm looking for therapies that target ageing damage and slow or reverse it," she says. "I've already spent six years on this stuff. So far I've found only a few companies — two or three I'm really bullish on."
She, too, has tasted failure.
"The venture capitalists I met out here were sceptical at first," she says. "People say 'no' all the time. I had a lot of bad rejection at the start. It took a couple of months to get them to understand that while early-stage research isn't profitable, it can be later if you structure the company very well."
But thanks to the Thiel Fellowship, access to some of the nation's most successful businesspeople is quick and easy.
"I made a list of the 50 people I wanted to meet, and I've met almost all of them," she says. "It's really the connections you have and the people you know. I've had really positive feedback and got some really large amounts of money."
Her father calls her Little Miss Relentless. Not all parents are initially so enthusiastic, however.
Another Thiel fellow, Noor Siddiqui, 18, is the daughter of parents who were born in Pakistan.
"This is shocking for my parents," she says. "It's not the safest road. I had to apply in secret."
But she has postponed college — she was accepted to Brown University, the University of Chicago and the University of Virginia, among others — to try to help impoverished workers in developing countries connect with North American businesses. Her parents now know about the fellowship and are supportive.
Frances Zomer, who runs her own accounting firm in Toronto, wasn't thrilled when her son, Christopher Olah, 19, decided to leave the University of Toronto, a top-ranked Canadian school. He had already spent a year there studying maths.
"The hardest part was him not going back to school," Zomer says. "The door had closed."
Now Olah divides his time between his mother's home in Toronto and a so-called hacker hostel, for aspiring tech entrepreneurs, in the Bay Area — and Zomer has changed her mind completely.
"This is stuff you don't learn in a classroom. He's blogging, he's teaching, he's writing software," she says. "I think it's brilliant. I know so many people who've got a Bachelor of Arts and have nothing to show for it."
But what if Silicon Valley doesn't work out?
"Failure has crossed my mind," Zomer says. "There are three possibilities. He's extremely successful and he stays. He's not successful and he stays. He can always come home. It's his life."
Dylan Field, 20, had already interned for Flipboard, the app for browsing news and social media, when he won a Thiel Fellowship. He left Brown to work on a browser-based photo application — a sort of no-cost, easy-to-use, amateur-friendly competitor to Photoshop, which is designed for, and largely sold to, professional users.
When it comes to regular folks, "most of our creative tools are broken right now", Field says. "If I have an idea without the tools to bring it to reality, that's a moral wrong. Our tools need to be improved and made accessible. I think that market is huge."
He has become close friends with Olah, who is writing software to enable three-dimensional printing.
Olah, who volunteers much of his time when in Toronto, is unusual in this group of innovators, many of whom are intensely driven to market their creations.
"I'm not starting a company right now," he says. "I want to make awesome tools available to other people."
Connor Zwick, 19, left Harvard to work a game application for smartphones — he calls it the "coco controller" — that he hopes will "revolutionise mobile gaming". For him, as for several other fellows, the Thiel Fellowship's gifts of time, money and access seem almost an afterthought.
If fellows focus all their energy on the fellowship and not their own work, "you're doing something wrong", he says. "You've lost focus. The benefit is the validation for our ideas. The money is nice, but I already have enough income from my projects that I don't need it."
Some people question Thiel's blunt dismissal of the college experience, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, says that the fellowships are nice but their message is destructive.
"These very unusual and talented kids are in a very high-powered learning environment," Carnevale says. "They're enormously privileged people who've been allowed to develop all their horsepower with no constraints. I think it makes you an odd duck."
A college education remains essential for people from less privileged backgrounds, says Carmen Wong Ulrich, co-founder of Alta Wealth Management, a three-woman investment firm in New York City.
"Many African-Americans and Asians can't even afford to ask the question, 'Is college worth it?' "
Ulrich, born in Harlem, grew up in a family of six. She and her mother worked as waitresses. Today, she mentors young Latinos.
"We're not all starting from the same starting line," she says. "While I certainly support some of Mr. Thiel's ideas, his kids are miles ahead of too many others. Go to Silicon Valley? Start your own business? Many of us are the first in our family to even attend college."
Carnevale says of the program: "It's a lab experiment. We'll see."
The New York Times