Amidst the hectic college application season, two founding members of the Thiel Fellowship, Danielle Strachman and Michael Gibson, encouraged students to follow their passions and not attempt to gain favor in the college admission process by forcing a fixed learning experience upon themselves.
On Tuesday night, Strachman and Gibson came to the Nest, formerly known as the Makerspace, to promote the pursuit of personal philanthropic, academic and cultural goals that may differ from most students’ educational path.
“I think we live in a day and age where everything is focused on doing something because you need to get somewhere else…[but] focus on what you want to do and do a little bit at a time at whatever that project is… and keep developing it. It’s important,” said Strachman in an interview with The Phillipian.
The Thiel Fellowship, a grant-making program designed to help foster innovation, was established by the Thiel Foundation. Annually, the fellowship gives out $100,000 to 20 individuals under 22 who desire to pursue a project about which they are passionate, rather than continuing in a traditional school. The purpose behind the fellowship is to show that there is more than just one path to success and to encourage self-directed learning, Strachman said.
Gibson and Strachman added that many students today participate in specific activities at their high schools to impress college admissions officers and do not to follow their own passions.
“If there is something that you want to do and it is something that you’re passionate about, even if it doesn’t fit into homework or college applications or things that your parents want you to do, you [should] still carve out some time to do it because you don’t know where it will go,” said Strachman.
The money is distributed to selected students under one condition: diligence. While there are occasional check-ins to assess whether they fellows are actually achieving the goals they set for themselves, ultimately the program is all driven by self-motivated fellows.
During the presentation, Gibson and Strachman shared the story of Max Lock, someone who started with nothing but an idea, as the paradigm of a diligent innovator.
When Lock was 13, he started a business where he imported ice cream cones and cups from China and sold them to various buyers. Lock, however, found it difficult to negotiate prices with middlemen and was inspired to set up a platform similar to Yelp, which would allow small businesses to import directly from China.
With the help of the Thiel Fellowship, Lock was able to start up his own company called Fleet. Today, his company has 15 employees and is rapidly growing. Inspired by Lock’s success, Gibson and Strachman together founded an independent investment fund called the 1517 Fund. This organization invests between $1,000 and $500,000 in companies like Lock’s.
According to Gibson and Strachman, the name is a historical reference to the Protestant Reformation and the protests against the Catholic Church selling indulgences, which were promised to help individuals enter Heaven, but became primarily a money-making scheme for the Church.
“My favorite part about 1517 is that we can work with a broad range,” said Strachman. “So with our [1,000 dollar] grants, we can help someone who’s just getting started on something and it’s all new… and then we can help people all the way up to $500,000 … So, that, to me is really exciting: to be able to support people at multiple levels and not just one or the other.”
Strachman and Gibson hope that their presentation will allow students to become more mindful when making big decisions such as deciding their majors, their colleges and what they want to achieve in life.
“To have people comment and talk about not using that [college] path to get to what you want to be is very strange… even if you don’t use the fellowship or use 1517, the ideas that they have in their programs are really invaluable and can really help in any field you decide to go into,” said Ashley Scott ’16 in an interview with The Phillipian after the presentation.