Tim Draper’s superhero-laden vision for the future of education is so nuts that it might actually work

By Michael Carney , written on April 22, 2013

From The News Desk

Tim Draper's children may all be out of the house already, but if they were in high school today, he says that he'd have a hard time advising them to go to a traditional four year university. As the founder and a Managing Director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), the third generation Silicon Valley VC has been investing in college grads (and dropouts) for nearly three decades. And he thinks that higher education is broken.

“Education has to think about renovating itself,” Draper says. “People are concerned about cost, how long it takes, and how unprepared graduates are when they get to the workforce. Training has been so rote, that it rarely prepares people for the unexpected, for change, for experimentation.”

It’s this belief that led to the formation to Draper University of Heroes, “an immersive boarding school in San Mateo, California for students 18-26 years old, dedicated to encouraging proactive entrepreneurship.” The University of Heroes just began its second eight week session last week, following a pilot session that kicked off in June of last year.

The $7,500 entrepreneurial crash course attracted 41 students eager to listen to lectures sitting in bean bag chairs, not desks, to play volleyball with two balls, rather than one, to learn as much about urban survival as they do about reading financial statements, and to eschew discussions of history for those of the future.

“Everyday is different, they get hit from all sides,” Draper says. “We change the rules of every game they’ve ever played. As an educator, I think you’re far better off encouraging people’s curiosity and stretching their limits.”

While the super hero branding might be a bit cliche, it’s core to Draper’s vision of challenging people to think big, ignore societally imposed limits, and change the world. This is the kind of run-into-the-fire thinking, he says, that was required of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and even Thomas Jefferson. But it’s not being taught in traditional schools, either at the K-12 or university level.

“Too many schools don’t have the confidence to do the whimsical,” Draper says. “They’re afraid to teach science fiction, in conjunction with predictive analytics, and to ask what’s next. Schools are all about to being comfortable – teachers are on on tenure, teaching the same thing every year, which is unacceptable in changing world.”

Draper U is not meant to be a replacement for higher education – yet. At just eight weeks, it’s designed to be a supplement. But like other alternative education programs from Khan Academy, Coursera, CodeAcademy, and the Minerva Project, among others, many are looking to the University of Heroes as a prototype for what the future of education will look like. (God help us.)

Dean James Ellis of the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business recently visited the school looking for ideas to emulate back on his traditional campus, as did CalArts president Dr. Steven Lavine, according to Draper. Whether we’ll see any USC Trojan MBAs practicing archery or juggling while giving a powerpoint presentation remains to be seen.

One thing that USC and nearly every other university around the country should pay close attention to is Draper’s University Collective accelerator, which is run in conjunction with his son Adam Draper’s Boost VC. As we’ve addressed previously, university accelerators tend to fall woefully short. With three generations of Silicon Valley venture capital experience baked into Draper U, and Adam’s Boost acceleratory now on its third private accelerator class, expect the University Collective to better manage the inherent disconnect between education and free market capitalism than most.

The University of Heroes is not a philanthropic endeavor. Draper expects the school to break even, at minimum, and keep its doors open on its own “free market merits.” Which brings us back to the $7,500 tuition. At this rate, the school is not for the disadvantaged. It’s much closer to an elite summer camp for the children of the 1 percent. And that’s part of the problem.

For Draper University of Heroes to have a massive impact, it needs to figure out a way to amplify its message to reach more than 300 kids per year, and to deliver that message across the socioeconomic spectrum. Draper, however, is counting on these graduates to take the school’s doctrine back to their traditional universities and into their communities and future companies where the impact can be magnified.

In an effort to expand the applicant pool, Draper allows students to pledge the university 2 percent of their income over the next 10 years in lieu of tuition, or, in true Valley dealmaking style, to propose an alternative arrangement. One such arrangement which the school accepted was to put its logo on the body of a student’s race car following his graduation.

Another potential threat to the university’s ambitious goals are the kitschy fantasy and frat boy themes that permeate its walls. This is not to say that there is not method within the madness, but simply that the program also needs to figure out a way to quantify and demonstrate its effectiveness, less people’s natural inclination toward skepticism prevail. Draper U’s biggest obstacle, after all, is credibility.

It’s not just the students who Draper hopes will be improved by their time at the University of Heroes. The founder is hoping to improve his own performance as a VC.

“The VC business is going through a big change at the moment,” he says. “I’m hoping that by throwing myself into the school and incubator I’ll get a better handle on how to think about VC in the future.”

In addition to changing his investing philosophy, the school could also prove to be a source of proprietary deal flow. Given its competitive application process and intensive indoctrination process, graduates are likely to be modeled in Draper’s own likeness. Not surprisingly, he made investments in four graduates of last summer’s pilot program via his personal investment vehicle Draper Associates – although this is not the focus of the program.

Education is one of Draper's primary area of investment focus, with his central belief being that in the future education will become far more of a meritocracy powered by technology – and is placing bets in areas that make this future a reality. For example, Draper believes that the most extraordinary teachers will one day focus on a single area of deep domain expertise – he offered the example of long division – and will be streamed into (physical or virtual) classrooms around the world to teach that single subject. The teacher in the classroom then becomes the tutor, rather than the primary instructor.

“We’re betting on efficiency in education, but I think there still has to be a human component,” Draper says.

Draper began dabbling in education in 1997 with BizWorld, a nonprofit founded with his then ten year old daughter Jesse to teach elementary school aged kids about business. In 2000, he was a primary force behind Proposition 38, a California school voucher initiative into which he invested $16 million of his own money fighting a losing battle against teachers unions. In the years since, Draper has been perpetually searching for ways to improve entrepreneurial education. It wasn’t until he purchased the aging landmark Benjamin Franklin hotel in San Mateo in 2011 that he – with some prodding from his eldest son Adam – arrived at the idea of building Draper University.

Back to Draper’s own kids. His eldest, Jesse, is an alumni of the UCLA School of Theater which she parlayed into a successful Web TV show, the Valley Girl Show. Adam was also a Bruin, but dropped out during his senior year – he is currently finishing his coursework – to launch his first business, Xpert Financial, which evolved into Boost. Billy attended, you guessed it, UCLA, where he studied film, but has since forgone his Hollywood aspirations to launch his own a online marketing startup called Tim’s youngest daughter Elle is currently completing the Draper UCLA quadfecta, studying dance.

So how does he reconcile his educational advice for others with the path of his own children? Simple (if not a little hypocritical). Each of his kids has absorbed 18 years of zany entrepreneurial parenting before ever leaving the nest. Case in point, none of his eldest three chose to apply for a traditional job after leaving university. Rather, each has launched a company. Their family safety net surely didn’t hurt when contemplating such a nontraditional path, but Draper is hoping that his university can instill similar confidence and provide the tools necessary for a whole generation of entrepreneurs to follow suit.

In addition to creating strong networks among fellow students, Draper University will offer participants a chance to rub elbows with Silicon Valley’s finest. The recent pilot program had Tesla, SpaceX, and PayPal founder Elon Must and Zappos founder Tony Hsieh stop by for a private fireside chat. While there is only one Elon, and few people have been as bold (crazy) as Hsieh to invest $350 million of their own money rebuilding a dilapidated desert community, Draper expects to have regular appearances at the university by other industry leaders.

Given the superheroes themes, Draper’s regular use of words like whimsical, and its zany curriculum Draper University of Heroes appears to have more in common with Harry Potter’s Hogwarts than it does with anything seen in traditional education. But then again, that’s the point. After graduation, students receive a CA, or change agent degree, as well as instructions to go out into the world and be exactly that.

“People that enter the world with a CA from Draper U will be more qualified than most university graduates,” Draper says. “There will be plenty of companies that will want to hire them, but mark my words, they will be the ones doing the majority of the hiring.”