Young entrepreneurs who dare to skip college and dive into an industry of their choice have found an ally in PayPal founder Peter Thiel, a high-flying Silicon Valley venture capitalist.
Thiel, who heads the hedge fund Clarium Capital and is a managing partner in the VC firm The Founders Fund, in March launched the "20 Under 20" program, which empowers young and driven entrepreneurs to try their skills in the real world.
Thiel, 43, earned both undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University.
The 20 Under 20 project was conceived partially due to Thiel's concern about the very expensive costs of higher education.
"There are a lot of talented people for whom it makes sense to do something not entirely tracked," said Thiel, adding, "We wanted to encourage talented young people to explore some alternatives," noting that the existing "credentialing process" may not be for everyone.
Thiel initially pursued jobs in law and on Wall Street before becoming an entrepreneur. In 1998, he co-founded PayPal, which was bought for $1.5 billion by eBay in 2002. He was also one of the early investors in Facebook.
Dale Stephens was one of the fortunate recipients of the 20 Under 20 grant. He launched UnCollege (www.uncollege.org), a nonprofit initiative that helps other teens educate themselves outside the conventional university system.
"I created my education, essentially hacked it by leveraging the resources of the world around me," said Stephens, whose annual stipend for two years is $50,000 with no strings attached - just an aid to get things started on his end.
Thiel disagrees with any criticism that the program encourages young people to trivialize college. He stressed that the fellows, who were chosen from over 400 applicants, showed brilliance and sheer determination.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the program is the fellows' privilege to be taken under the wings of over a hundred influential entrepreneur mentors who assist from Day 1 with regards to business plans, networks and other things needed for brilliant ideas to take flight.
Christopher Rueth, 17, is among the youngest of the fellows. Rueth was motivated by his own frustration in high school, where there were restrictions on students' internet use. He was looking forward to moving to Palo Alto and getting started on making the internet more accessible to people throughout the world.
"In San Francisco I'm hoping to be hooked up with product development experts, product designers," he said. "A thing like the fellowship is good for the people who are ready for it."
Steve Blank, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who teaches at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, does not think business schools do a particularly good job in preparing students for real careers.
"To generalize that [20 Under 20] is great or bad is missing the argument," said Blank.
"After seeing how people learn, you can't generalize what is great for one group is great for another."
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