There goes Peter Thiel again, corrupting the youth with opportunity

By Sarah Lacy , written on June 4, 2013

Published to the News desk.

On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in San Francisco last week, a few hundred teens were sitting in an auditorium... for fun. They were enjoying Peet's Coffee -- some of the older ones were anyway -- and a feel-good series of keynotes. There were a lot of "close your eyes and imagine" moments.

Close your eyes and imagine these summits being held in your hometown...

Close your eyes and imagine that special mentor in your life...

Close your eyes and just breathe...

A focus on an airy future not yet realized was appropriate, as the audience ranged in age from nine years old to 19. This was the Thiel Fellowship's third annual Under 20 Summit, where some 300 invited kids flocked to San Francisco to wade into the waters of entrepreneurship. Young entrepreneurs are a cliche in the Valley, but a nine-year-old sitting next to his mom makes even Mark Zuckerberg look like Methuselah.

The event is an outgrowth of Peter Thiel's controversial Thiel Fellowship, where kids can opt out of college and try their hand at entrepreneurship. It's a way to include more of the applicants for the Thiel Fellowship who don't quite make the investment cut, although people can apply just for the Summit as well. It's free for anyone invited, and looking around it was a more ethnically diverse group than I typically see in Silicon Valley, with a sizable number of girls in attendance. Over several hours, everyone was eyes forward and engaged, not a single person I saw thumbing away on his or her phone. This was like a modern day Space Camp, a place just for brainiacs.

Thiel is viewed by some as a libertarian freedom fighter, by others as a mysterious Mr. Burns like figure, and by others still as a man trying to corrupt today's youth. The latter meme came about when Thiel declared education the biggest bubble in our economy and started a program to fund 20 kids who would rather start a company than stay in school.

For all the hysteria, any examination of what Thiel has actually said and done with the Foundation shows a pretty middle-of-the-road approach to what's now wildly acknowledged as a big problem with cost/benefits of higher education. He certainly doesn't condemn anyone getting a degree. He just doesn't think it's the only path. Twenty kids taking another route is hardly a full assault on higher education. Still, it's one of the last sacred cows in our culture.

Part of the reason people freak out is the very problem with education. It's an insurance policy, Thiel has argued. People put in the time and money not to learn, but for the security that a better life and good job awaits. Increasingly, as costs have risen and the economy has faltered, the security of that has been called into question, and higher education has come under assault. With it, there's been an explosion of ed tech innovation. It's hard to see that as a bad thing, even if you disagree with Thiel's macro thesis.

It's also hard to see his teen summit as a bad thing. In general, entrepreneurs are getting more and more sophisticated at early ages in the Valley, and that's keeping terms and practices very founder-friendly. This is just pushing that trend even further -- and doing so at young enough ages that it's more inclusive on a gender and ethnic basis.

I was allowed in as one of only a few reporters ever invited to attend. It was less a tech summit and more of a summer camp for smart, independent thinkers. One of the organizers referred to it like a "talent show" for people who have less obvious talents than, say, playing the tuba. The two-day event included office hours with mentors and sessions that laid a very rudimentary foundation for what building a real business entails. Examples were, "Real business plans, and what your first investors will want (no make that need) to see," or "You think dating is hard? Try finding and keeping a co-founder."

During the lunch break the teens excitedly grabbed box lunches and clustered around with one another, talking about what programming languages they know, when they learned them, and what kinds of companies they may want to create one day, and whether they may start them with one another. An active Facebook group keeps them in touch throughout the year.

The ideas are very aspirational -- somewhat "pie in the sky" even. Thiel fellows in the past are heavy on science -- people working on nuclear power and biotech, not just coding a simple iPhone app.

Here are videos of two of my favorites from past classes. We featured them on a list about teen entrepreneurs last year:

I mean, she had me at "lasering the gonads off worms." My other fav, the youngest person in the world to produce nuclear fusion:

Whenever I interact with the program, I'm struck by how unafraid and unencumbered the teens are -- even if they do come off as a little naive. One thing I love about the program is it gives the students insight into the way real companies work, while still encouraging that naivety. It doesn't try to squash these budding scientist and coder dreams by throwing the cold water of reality on them because -- who knows? -- maybe these teens will change reality.

Besides, they've got their 20s to learn about the evils of bad VCs, founder ousters, and the pain of scaling an organization. For now, I'm happy to see them close their eyes, imagine building any idea they can dream  up, and letting the wonder of science and entrepreneurship wash over them.

[Peter Thiel is an investor in PandoDaily.]

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