New Documentary Shows What Brilliant Dropouts Do With $100,000

Jul 18, 2014 by

Andrew Desiderio –

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s eponymous fellowship, which pays entrepreneurial students $100,000 to skip or drop out of college and pursue their dreams, has drawn scorn from educators since the first class was named three years ago.

Former Harvard President Larry Summers has called the Thiel Fellowship “the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy in this decade.”

Thiel’s annual bet on 20 promising young people is under a fresh cultural spotlight through a new documentary, Teen Technorati, produced by Wired. The fellowship announced its new class last month.

The no-strings-attached two-year $100,000 grant includes a mentor – such as an investor, scientist or entrepreneur – to guide each fellow, though fellows are expected to set their own course and use the money how they see fit. They move to San Francisco to work on the fellowship.

Youth Is ‘Best Time to Take Risks’ For This ‘Idiot’

As depicted in Teen Technorati’s short documentary episodes, many students share their excitement of traveling to Silicon Valley to “wake up without any to-do list but my own,” in the words of 19-year-old Alexander Koren.

Koren is developing “software to help developers monetize their applications,” he told Wired in one episode.

“The idea of dropping out of school is controversial, but I know I am making the right decision,” said Koren.

Lucy Guo, who is working on “educational games,” said her parents even called her an “idiot” for packing up and moving out west to pursue her dreams.

In another episode, Guo said that youth is “the best time in your life to take risks” because there is more time to start again.

The fellows toured Google’s campus and met with Google’s engineers and discussed their projects in another episode.

“I love that we can be kind of this inter-collaborative group of people aimed towards not only furthering our own endeavors or pursuits, but also making sure we help each other,” Koren said.

Stuck in a War Zone? Thiel Will Get You Out

Eighty fellows have either completed or are currently in the program, according to Mike Gibson, vice president of grants for the Thiel Foundation.

In an interview with The College Fix, Gibson said these fellows have produced, to date, more than $100 million in activity, which includes “securing venture financing, selling companies, product of service revenue, outside grants, and partnership or sponsorship values.”

Fellow Ritik Malhotra sold his cloud-based media streaming service, Streem, to cloud-storage and collaboration provider Box last month. Laura Deming formed The Longevity Fund, which is dedicated to financing anti-aging companies and recently invested in Navitor Pharmaceuticals.

Last year the fellowship started offering shared housing for the first three months, which Gibson said lets the fellows get to know each other better and more easily collaborate on projects.

This, he says, “fosters a sense of community that we believe is critically important to the program.”

Matthew Scholz, CEO of biotech startup Immusoft and a mentor in the Thiel program, told The College Fix he “would have jumped on this in a heartbeat” as a teenager in the late 1990s.

A couple years ago one of the finalists, a programmer, lived in Syria, Scholz said. “The war broke out a few hundred meters” from his house: “They actually extracted him from Syria, got him papers and flew him to the Bay Area” for his interview, Scholz said. “They’ll make it happen” for talented students anywhere.

Thiel himself may be best known to college students for his depiction in The Social Network – he was the first outside investor in Facebook – but he also co-founded PayPal.

Reportedly inspired by Ayn Rand, Thiel is also funding a group that’s trying to build a floating libertarian paradise in international waters.

Who Needs to Drop Out to Succeed?

At least one serial entrepreneur thinks Thiel is underestimating what students can do while still in college.

Michael Baum, known as the “anti-Thiel,” gives teams of young entrepreneurs $100,000 to work on their startups while they continue college. Baum’s, a “global student entrepreneur investor and company building program” now in its second year, announced its 10 student teams for the class of 2015 last month.

Seven out of the 10 first-year student teams got additional investments, such as Vinay Mahadik’s Securly, which protects more than 200,000 student devices from “malicious Web content and cyber-bullying,” said. Mahadik was a Wharton MBA student when he joined the project and has since completed his degree.

The Thiel program may be closer to a “prestigious two-year sabbatical” rather than a college alternative, TechCrunch reporter Sarah Buhr concluded after interviewing the new summer class in San Francisco.

Eight of the 20 students Buhr talked to said they would consider returning to school after the program, she said.

While only six fellowship students have gone back to college, the program is still relatively young, with only 40 students “barely out” of the program and another 40 still enrolled, Buhr said.

via New Documentary Shows What Brilliant Dropouts Do With $100,000.

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