When given the task of sending a cold-email to someone I would like to meet, I was stumped. Who would I want to talk to? Being relatively new to the entrepreneurial world, I honestly had no idea who would be a good fit for my interests. But as I kept thinking about it, I didn’t necessarily want to talk to someone established. I wanted to talk to people my age who were on a similar path. Enter, the Thiel Fellows. The Thiel Fellowship is awarded to 20 young people under the age of 20, giving them $100,000 over a period of two years to drop out of college and pursue their own unique ideas. It was created by Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor of Facebook. I had the opportunity to talk to Tara Seshan and Noor Siddiqui, two of the members of the newest (and only second class) of Thiel Fellows.
Noor is a recent high-school grad who turned down acceptances from the University of Chicago, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to take the Thiel Fellowship. She is interested in incentivizing education in order to mobilize the “bottom billion” of the world’s population by teaching skills that have greater utility that the labor they would be doing otherwise.
Tara is a friend of mine from school and in an e-mail, summed herself in the following: Tara was one of the youngest juniors at UNC before she decided to found her startup, Chek.Up. After 5 months researching public health systems in Vietnam, 2.5 months in Namibia, and a whole lot of time in class, she realized that material change in the field can be affected by the tools she learned in her tech internships rather than those she learned in her policy and law classes. You can see her experience thus far on her LinkedIn page, including her experience with the Morehead Cain scholarship, her Environmental Engineering research, her experience with a large management consulting firm, running ventures at national nonprofits, and work in social justice at UNC, but the experience off the page: the fact that she strives for tenacity and integrity, that she values building relationships, and that she’s been starting businesses since the age of 8 are more important.
My conversations with them ranged from what their ideas were, to what they wanted to accomplish in two years, and what they wanted to gain from the experience. Both Tara and Noor had similar reasons for pursuing the fellowship: a desire to benefit society in “actually actionable, tangible fashions” by addressing problems that remain unsolved. At the end of their fellowship, they want to have made meaningful connections and relationships, gained new skills and greater understanding, and “be in a place to make sustainable change”. Lofty goals, to be sure, but goals similar to where I want to be in two years. That is part of the reason I wanted to talk to Tara and Noor, because they are doing now what I will hopefully be doing in a couple of years.
At the end of my conversations, I saw some really interesting parallels between the Thiel Fellowship and Venture for America.
- Both programs are seeking to disrupt the status quo
- Both are investing in the power of young people and idealists
- Both are seeking to make sustainable impact
- Both have an emphasis on mentorship
- Both programs are seeking to create a brand that has its own degree of credibility
- Both programs mirror their missions in a way. Venture for America has a start-up feel, while the Thiel Fellowship is more similar to an angel investing group.
- The Thiel Fellowship is much more selective, and as accomplished as the people in Venture for America are, none of us have gotten doctorates in our teens or built a nuclear reactor before turning 18.
- Venture for America is definitely focused primarily on the US, and is seeking to have its Fellows go through an apprenticeship-like process before giving them a baptism by fire to have them create change on their own.
Needless to say, I’m excited to see where Venture for America, the Thiel Fellowship, Noor, Tara, and I all are in two years. Perhaps a follow-up post then, kind of a then and now type deal.