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Advising a Potential Thiel 20 Under 20 Fellow

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The past few days have been full of debate around the Thiel 20 Under 20 fellowship, which encourages 20 students to stop out of school and build the next great tech and science companies, and the broader debate about education, and especially entrepreneurial education, in the USA.  It started with the TechCrunch piece on Peter Thiel’s view that the real bubble is in education.  Then Vivek Wadwa replied with Friends Don’t Let Friends Take Education Advice from Thiel.  Then, Dale Stephens, a Thiel finalist himself, replied with his own defense.

As someone who considers 3 of those who received the fellowship as close friends (and, maybe, family!) I’ve been asked directly for advice on whether to accept it.  While I don’t know the right answer for each person, I want to make sure I’m helping them think about the right questions to ask themselves and others so they can ultimately decide on their own.

Here are some of the criteria, perspectives, and questions I’ve been thinking about:

  • What are you (planning on) majoring in?

If the answer is something fuzzy (i.e. non-technical), then it can probably be learned in other settings, in which case the most important parts of the educational experience are likely the connections, experiences, late-night chats, etc.  If the answer is something technical (likely computer science, EE, ME, or environmental engineering), those skills are tougher to learn on their own, but can be done.

  • How much schooling is necessary to achieve what you want to get out of it?

Is it one year?  Two years?  If you are two years in, and you went to the school for connections, experiences, network, etc., is the marginal benefit of another year at the same school greater or less than Peter Thiel’s network?  The answer is pretty obvious here.

  • If your field is something much more technical and capital intensive, how will you manage that?

Where will you get the capital?  Will they help you?  Is the Thiel network just as strong in cleantech (if applicable) as consumer internet?

  • If you’re sitting in your class at Stanford as a junior having turned down the Thiel Fellowship, will you be kicking yourself?

Yeah, while on Facebook.

  • Will this opportunity come again?

Maybe, but probably not for you.

  • What’s the upside in the Thiel case?

The Forbes 400 and a real contribution to society.

  • What’s the downside in the Thiel case?

Going back to school to finish 1-2 years likely when your current school friends have already all graduated.

  • What is the expected value of the fellowship?

An unbelievable experience that cannot be replicated.  Peter Thiel is not one to let something like this, which has been hyped and criticized so much in the popular press, fail.

My Takeaway: I’m clearly bullish on the fellowship and think it is a no-brainer for my internet friends.  But I do wonder what sorts of guidance will be provided to those who have more technical ideas that may not be as conducive to rapid failure & pivoting during a 2 year stint and would require more capital and technical expertise.

What other criteria would you add if you had to advise the fellowship winners?


Written by sheeltyle

April 14, 2011 at 8:35 am

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