In the fall of his senior year, Ben Riddle was accepted to Furman University, a liberal arts school just 15 miles away from his South Carolina high school. Then in March of 2012, he was accepted to Stanford, and the lobbying began. Rod Smolla, president of Furman at the time, pushed for Riddle to stay in Greenville.
An on-campus visit to Stanford only made things tougher for Riddle, who loves tech, design, and networking with people who want to change the world. Stanford invites accepted students to visit Palo Alto at the end of April and while there, they must decide whether or not to attend. "They make it difficult to say no," says Ben’s father, Thomas Riddle. "I loved the place," Ben says.
But in the end he stayed in South Carolina: The small leafy campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains had a hold on Riddle. Furman offered Riddle an academic scholarship and President Smolla offered to make Riddle his assistant.
There is no simple answer why someone would turn down the chance to study tech at the school that is such an inescapable part of Silicon Valley. In Riddle’s case, the answer is partly about the range of options he’d be leaving behind in Greenville, and partly about how Stanford has managed to extend its reach far beyond California.
Riddle is from a Furman family—both parents are Paladins. "We’ve encouraged all our children to serve their community and to commit to service and Ben has always done that," his father, Thomas, says.
To that end, Riddle had made a name for himself in the Greenville area while still a high schooler. As co-president of his senior class, he helped raise over $80,000 for a local nonprofit helping kids who have a parent in prison. He earned a local reputation as a tireless connector, fascinated with technology, involved in enough projects to fill the schedules of five people.
At Furman, Riddle’s frenetic pace has only grown. "I’m not sure when he sleeps," said Professor Ross McClain, the chair of the art department who works with Riddle in the University Innovation Fellows program at Furman. "He must just sit on the edge of his bed and fall over."
Critically, the Fellows program has allowed Riddle to stay linked to Stanford, since the school is one of the co-managers of the initiative, which offers programs to engineering students and faculty to "build a national entrepreneurship agenda in engineering," according to its website.
The rub here is that Furman doesn’t have an engineering program. The school didn’t create one for Riddle, but, with the help of McClain, created a new independent study—Social Entrepreneurship. As part of the program, Riddle has visited Stanford to study design and Berlin to study sustainable development and international relations.
The arrangement brought McClain and Furman to new places too. McClain recalls going to a conference with Riddle where they were surrounded by students and faculty from schools such as Michigan and MIT. Furman is the smallest school in the program, a fact that delights McClain. "It was pretty cool to be working with schools that size," McClain says. "But I also thought, ‘This is where we belong.’"
The thrust of Riddle’s studies is problem-solving. As it has become more apparent that government is either unable or (as is often the case in South Carolina) unwilling to come up with solutions, there are a million problems for an entrepreneur to tackle. And in a small town like Greenville, there is less bureaucracy and partnerships are easier to build. He recently worked to organize locals who want better policies and services for the homeless. (Greenville has received a slew of favorable media coverage thanks to its revitalized downtown, and city boosters have no interest in having images of homeless people mixed into that picture.)
After he visited a legislator in the state capital, his father received a phone call from the lawmaker who suggested that Ben might want to tone down his progressive views (Greenville is among the reddest parts of one of the reddest states). Thomas, who views Ben’s social engagement as part of his Christian upbringing, shrugged it off.
When the subject of politics comes up, Riddle, whose face still looks as if it’s not yet been touched by a razor, breaks into a creased smile. He knows that his youth can be a liability when it comes to local policy—and in academia. As McClain says, "It’s intimidating when the youngest person in the room is also the smartest person in the room."
It's all part of growing up Greenville.