Catching Up with First Thiel ‘Dropout’ Fellows, One Year On

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and a big player on the venture capital scene, wanted to prove that with enough drive and imagination, a college education wasn’t a necessary prerequisite to success. For students with creativity and drive, thinks Thiel, four years spent in college wouldn’t just be a waste time — but would actually hold them back. Faced with crushing student loan debt, some might choose to pursue safer avenues of employment in order to get on a firm financial footing instead of risking it all to start their own company and develop their ideas.

That is how the Thiel Fellowship came about. Operated by the Thiel Foundation, the program invited anyone of college age to pitch their business idea and offered those selected $100,000 over two years to drop out of college to spend that time trying to turn their idea into reality.

It has been a year since the first class of fellows joined the program. Judging by the fact that a second class of fellows has already been announced, the Foundation is happy with the results of their experiment.

“So far, they’ve really surpassed our expectations,” said Thiel Fellowship co-founder Jonathan Cain. “It’s been so rewarding getting to know the fellows over the last year, working with them, seeing them develop and grow.”
Cain said that all 24 of the originally selected 2011 fellows remain active in the program. Neither Thiel nor the foundation has an ownership stake in any of the companies the grants help create (although several are revenue generating).

Several program members shared their experience over the last year with Inc. magazine. None of the five interviewed have taken their companies to the revenue-generating step quite yet, but all claim to have learned some valuable lessons over the past year that will be useful as they strive to succeed. Andrew Hsu is a CEO of educational gaming company Airy Labs and hopes to make learning as engaging for children as video gaming. He said that taking part in the program taught him just how much effort and “sweat and toil” goes into creating and leading a new technology business. Still, he’s happy to be clear of the college hierarchical system that predominates on college campuses, presumably finding the atmosphere of a start-up a better fit.

Dale Stephens also turned towards the field of education to make his mark, but focused on college rather than secondary schools. His company is an alternative-education site called UnCollege.org. Although the site doesn’t currently bring in money, Stephens achieved financial success in another area: he negotiated a nearly six-figure advance from Penguin Publishing for writing a book on what the education of the future is going to look like. Hacking Your Education is due on store shelves sometime in 2013.