Thiel Fellow Ben Yu Scrapped Harvard To Climb Kilimanjaro, Revolutionize Online Price Comparisons

Quitting college at 18 to move to Silicon Valley and pursue your startup is the stuff of Hollywood dreams. Now add a billionaire benefactor bankrolling you, and the pressure to prove that entrepreneurship rivals Harvard as a path to success. The inaugural class of Thiel Fellows is blogging about their experiences for Fast Company. Here is Ben Yu's story.

Ben Yu

It's good to be here. I'm very excited to be blogging about the next few years of my life as I navigate through the Thiel Fellowship and the startup world. None of us have any clue what's going to happen, but at least now all of you can have just as little of a clue as we do as we blog through our adventures.

To start, let's paint a backdrop of my life and see how I ended up with this absurd turn of events. I was born on the 36th day of 1992, in a small, homely hospital on the outskirts of New Brunswick, New Jersey. From there began a slow and steady migration west through Kentucky, Minnesota, and ultimately Illinois, where my parents finally decided to settle down in the rather self-descriptive town of Plainfield.

At this point, I can't lie and say I'm not a product of my environment, because I know I owe an immense amount to Plainfield. There's something about spending eight wholly uninterrupted years of your life amongst nothing but corn fields and the complete and utter normality of standard American suburbia that simply makes it impossible to not want to do something extraordinary with your life.

And so for me, the need to go big began to manifest itself in the midst of high school, where it culminated one summer in my spontaneous commandeering of the family car and consequent 1,200-mile drive with a friend to hike the Appalachian Trail. We returned exhausted and full of back pain (hint: always wear backpacks with hip straps), but at last we had gotten a taste of what was out there, and for the first time in my life I realized that we could shape our own paths. That we didn't have to confine ourselves to the mundane, and that there was so much more that we could do—so long as we did it.

And thus after another 2,800-mile excursion down to the Everglades, I matriculated at Harvard in the fall of 2010, ready to take on the world. Only there was a slight problem—there wasn't much of the world to take on at Harvard. It was a perfect little bubble in every sense of the word, and almost everyone was fully consumed in their studies and "extracurricular" activities. A feeling of stagnation began to set in, and I started to wonder what I was doing. These were the peak years of my life—I would never be so vigorous, so energetic, so passionate and mentally capable ever again, and I was spending them in mere preparation of the future, not participating in it. I had so many passions I wanted to pursue—entrepreneurship, life extension, artificial intelligence, travel, exploration, and adventure in every sense ... and I was doing none of that. With a growing sense of dread, I saw that Harvard was turning into another Plainfield for me—constricting, confining, suffocating. I had to get out.

In a sense, I took the first ticket out that I could, which happened to be a plane ticket to Tanzania.

The rest is a beautiful blur. In between climbing Kilimanjaro, walking with lions and wildebeest, visiting Buddha statues and the pyramids of Giza, and living halfway up a mountain, I began to notice all the possibilities that existed outside of institutionalized education. Back in December, intent on pursuing my entrepreneurial passions, I had applied to the Thiel Fellowship—and here, a week before my Kilimanjaro trek, they were telling me I was a finalist.

Talk about surreal. A year ago, sitting among my corn fields, this is the last place I imagined I'd be. Startups were a distant abstraction. The Thiel Fellowship didn't exist. College had been unquestionable.

My dreams are melding into reality. And I can't wait to see where they take me.

Ben Yu

Read more from the Thiel Fellows

Ben Yu had just returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro when he interviewed with the Thiel Foundation. He was about to climb another mountain in China when he learned he had won. His next challenge is to build an e-commerce start-up that will revolutionize price comparison on the web. Before climbing Kilimanjaro and taking on the current leaders in comparison shopping, Ben was a freshman at Harvard.

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  • xfnty

    Maybe I missed the point, why is he a "whiz kid"?  I know lots of people who bummed around traveling.  Congrats on the free cash though.

  • Brian Joseff

    , the point of going to school should be to equip yourself with the skills and experiences that will allow you to impact the "state of the world" in a positive way. Unfortunately, an institutionalized education certainly has "plainfield-esque" qualities as Ben Yu pointed out, and as I am coming to grips with going into my second year as an undergraduate. However, it looks to me like Ben is getting the best of both worlds ("surfing the Himalayas" and education) because he is doing the surfing part while putting himself in a position where he can learn very real skills and possibly impact the world in very real ways. Wasting away in the stifling, spa-like confines of a top-tier four year university is a book that has already been written. While such conditions haven't spurred me to quit and join the Thiel 20 (not a chance I would be picked considering I didn't spend my formative years coding sophisticated analytics software or what have you), they have certainly made me cast my gaze to the sky in search of ways I can spend my time so that I can impact the world in real ways as opposed to spending the next four years of my life writing papers, reading academic literature, drinking myself into oblivion on the weekends, and making sure to drop by the corporate recruiting fairs to secure a position at Goldman when I get out.

  • Michael Scott

    Institutionalized education often demands banal performance with less than meaningful returns.  But without this drive to conform, it may be tough to succeed in the corporate world.  One must be careful not to slip into a life spent surfing the Himalayas....that book has already been written.