It may seem counterintuitive, incentivizing our best students to drop out of school. But that’s what the Thiel Foundation is doing: offering $100,000 this week to its first batch of teenagers in a “20 Under 20” program. All selectees must leave school for two years and become entrepreneurs, studying independently (with help from the foundation) in areas that include biotech, education, energy, mobility, robotics, space, information technology, and economics and finance.
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Even at their young age, the fellows selected have already been “challenging the authority of the present and the familiar,” says James O’Neill, the foundation’s head, who hopes the program “will help young people everywhere realize that you don’t need credentials to launch a company that disrupts the status quo.”
There were more than 400 applications, from two dozen countries and 200 high schools and colleges, for the 20 slots.
“Tomorrow will not take care of itself,” adds Peter Thiel, who 13 years ago co-founded PayPal, which later was sold to eBay. “In order to solve vexing problems and increase the quality of life for people everywhere, the world’s economy needs continuous scientific and technical innovation from outstanding creative minds.”
One selectee in the finance and economics area is Jeffrey Lim, who seeks to help protect wealth from the harmful effects of inflation, and will be leaving MIT to do that. Please hurry up, Jeffrey. (Actually, it might take a while; part of his approach involves revamping core economic and social institutions, to increase the amount of voluntary exchange and cooperation in the world.)
Another, Faheem Zaman, wants to revolutionize mobile financial services, seeing this as a step toward improving life in poor countries. A step in that direction he envisions: decentralizing banking in the developing world. A student from New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, he seemed headed for Harvard until the Thiel Foundation opportunity knocked.
Faheem also was named this year by the New York Times as one of eight Times scholars. And he suggested that he has plenty of traditional values to go with his nontraditional vision. His parents — who sold Bengali trinkets from home while he was growing up — told him “we don’t want you to necessarily be the richest guy on the block. But always try to help people, especially globally, if you can.”
With this inaugural class, the Thiel Foundation does something mathematically counterintuitive (though not exactly anti-inflationary) on its own. It redefines the number 20. For its “20 under 20” program, it selected 24 teens.
So, Harvard and MIT can wait. Good luck, Jeffrey and Faheem.