For Peter Thiel, the ultimate contrarian, it was the ultimate prank.
Back in 2011, the legendary PayPal founder and Silicon Valley investor launched an initiative he’d been thinking about for years—encouraging brilliant young students with a genius idea to skip college and start a company and maybe become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. Known for his singular intellect and independent streak, Thiel and his partners came up with a crazy stunt that echoed—and subverted—a well-known adventure from the 1960s.
It was Inspired by Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” which chronicled Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ drug-fueled journey driving a multicolored school bus across the country from California to New York. Thiel and friends planned to reverse the journey, driving from New York to California, picking up the first class of Thiel Fellows on their way and stopping at college campuses to make mischief and convince smart students to drop out and join them on their way to Silicon Valley. To top off the parallel, Wolfe’s daughter, journalist Alexandra Wolfe, planned to go along for the ride, chronicling the trip. They even planned to take Justin Bieber’s old tour bus and plotted their course on a map—but the bus didn’t start, coordinating the journey got too complicated, and they called off the stunt.
Though the journey never happened, the Thiel Fellows program was a big success and has attracted more applicants with every year. Only about 10% of fellows on average go back to finish their studies at college and several of them have become multimillionaires with thriving startups. Wolfe followed the fortunes of that first class of 2011, describing their successes and disappointments along the way in her new book, Valley of the Gods.
Below is a condensed and slightly edited version of my interview with Wolfe:
So, what is the track record of Thiel Fellows–how many went back to college in total?
About 10% went back to college, each class had two or three real monetary successes, and a couple were doing pretty well supporting themselves in Palo Alto and San Francisco. Most of them were still trying to make it out there, having lunch together every couple of weeks. Fellows get $100,000 per 2 years—that’s always been the case since the first group in 2011, which I followed. The biggest success out of that group was James Proud, who founded Hello, which makes the Sense sleep tracker [he’s raised about $40 million in the last four years and the startup has a $250 million valuation]. There are usually from 20 to 22 fellows each year and it’s grown from 400 applicants the first year to 5,000 now.
How have the Fellows changed over the years and how have their interests developed?
It’s gotten more diverse, more women, the ideas are probably more viable rather than moonshots. They wouldn’t say that, but that’s my perspective. More varied ideas.
More aligned with Peter Thiel’s interests [libertarianism, life extension technologies]?
Not really. Two of the people who were there at the beginning of the fellowship—activist Patri Friedman [former Googler and founder of the Seasteading Institute, which explored the development of floating politically autonomous cities] and James O’Neill [former co-head of the Thiel Foundation]—they chose a lot of it. So I don’t think Thiel was going through everything. I don’t think it was a directive from Thiel, more that the people he hired were interested in those topics.
I’m intrigued by [2011 Fellow] John Burnham, who went from an obsession with mining asteroids to developing a faith in religion? Where is he now?
He really had this flip-flop life. He was a Fellow, then went back to Dartmouth, then dropped out, posted on a tech blog his new idea and then dropped out again after a few weeks, and went to the Valley, to Thomas More [College], and then back to Dartmouth again. [In Silicon Valley] he grew disenchanted and thought it was all smoke and mirrors. He felt like he lost his moral compass, got confirmed as a Catholic, went back to Dartmouth and became interested in philosophy. He’s pretty much tried everything.
Any other fellows who grew so disenchanted with the ways of Silicon Valley that they ended up in a different direction?
There was this guy John Marbach in the first class, he applied and was going to do some online education company but he got into Wake Forest. His parents were supportive of him but they were like, “Why did we put so much money away for college?” And then his team kicked him out of their group because he couldn’t join them until after his first semester in college. And when he arrived, he didn’t know that many people, had no company idea, got very lonely, and ended up doing Y Combinator because it was more structured.”
Thiel is a senior adviser to President Trump. Any Thiel Fellows whom Peter has recruited to join the Trump transition team or administration?
Not that I know of. Some of those who have been named have worked for Thiel and his team, such as James O’Neill [who has been considered for the Food and Drug Administration]. He ran the Thiel Foundation, hosted some lunches with the Fellows, talked to all their parents.
Were you surprised that Thiel supported Trump?
Not really. I saw it as another example of him being a contrarian. Like a chess player, he called the real estate bubble before anyone else. He saw the country feeling a certain way, he predicted how the Trump understood how people felt. Everyone there [in the Valley] was so against Trump. I just saw him the other day and he seems pretty happy.
What parts of Thiel rubbed off on the fellows?
This whole him and Elon [Musk] and all the other big names in the Valley of the Gods. A lot of these kids think of him that way and they go out there and follow the idiosyncrasies of Thiel and these other billionaires. It’s harder to copy their genius. And a lot of his interests such as longevity, scientific research, and biotech stuff.