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Leadership

Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens Drops Out (Of College), Moves In (To Silicon Valley), And Starts Up (Talent-Scouting RadMatter)

Quitting college at 18 to move to Silicon Valley and pursue your startup is the stuff of Hollywood dreams. Now add a billionaire benefactor—PayPal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel—bankrolling you and under pressure to prove that entrepreneurship can rival Harvard as a path to success. The inaugural class of Thiel Fellows is blogging about their experiences for Fast Company. Here is Dale Stephens's story.

Dale StephensI'm not special.

Last Tuesday I was sitting in San Francisco International Airport, waiting to board my flight to speak at TEDxPlazaCibeles in Madrid and the man sitting next to me asked, "What do you do?"

I responded, "I lead a social movement changing the notion that college is the only path to success." Before I could say that the movement was called UnCollege, he said, "Oh you got one of those $100,000 fellowships, didn't you?"

I was impressed, but dismissed it as a matter of coincidence. I figured that the Thiel Fellowship was better publicized in Silicon Valley—the heart of technology entrepreneurship—than in other parts of the world. But while I was in Madrid the same thing happened. At dinner, the wife of one of the speakers again asked what I do, and I responded with the same line. She exclaimed, "I heard you on National Public Radio last week!" I was shocked.

Five months ago, before UnCollege, before the Thiel Fellowship, before speaking at conferences, before being interviewed on a regular basis by national media outlets, this wouldn't have happened. Before I left college, one of my fellow classmates wrote me an email telling me I had "fallen into an elaborate fantasy and need to wake up." Yes, I live in a dream world, but why do I need to wake up? While my "fantasy" continues I'm going to have as big an impact as possible.

For me, impact means empowering everyone to hack their education and change the world, irrespective of the letters after your name. UnCollege, the social movement I lead, is developing resources and a community to help students take their education beyond the real world. I'm an evangelist for RadMatter, the platform revolutionizing how people and institutions develop and demonstrate talent. I'm writing a book that gives people a framework to gain the street skills requisite for success in today's global entrepreneurial economy.

Naysayers like to dismiss me as an outlier, telling me I'm the 1% of the population that can succeed without a college degree. That's false. I didn't start out with any special connections, I didn't go to an Ivy League school, I'm not a genius, my parents aren't rich, and I didn't graduate from college at 14. If you call me "special" it's only because I learned early to live by the words of Mark Twain and "have never let my schooling interfere with my education."

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he wants to build a platform called RadMatter to revolutionize how we develop and demonstrate talent in the 21st century. At 19, he is a non-conformist in most aspects of his life.

Read about other Thiel fellows.