Peter Thiel made a big fuss in 2010 about why smart kids ages 20 and under should ditch college and apply for his $100,000 fellowship instead. But that didn’t stop several enterprising (and very young) college graduates from successfully receiving the Thiel Fellowship—and ten others from returning to campus after the end of the program.
Two former Thiel fellows had already graduated from college by the time they accepted the fellowship: Catherine Ray, who received a BS in Computational Physics from George Mason University at age 16, and Andrew Hsu, who earned three science degrees from the University of Washington at age 16.
And more college graduates could soon join their ranks, as the Thiel Fellowship has expanded to accept innovators as old as 22. “Our advertised limit [of 20 years old] didn’t stop hundreds of driven 21- and 22-year-olds from contacting us to apply this year, and we believe they deserve the same opportunity to show just how much they can get done outside college,” says Executive Director Jack Abraham in a prepared statement. As of June 5, the foundation will also review applications on a rolling basis, and accept up to 30 (currently 20) fellows per year.
But “the bar is especially high” for college graduates, according to senior advisor Mike Gibson. He explains, “We didn’t want to be beholden to birthdays, but [the fellowship] is still about supporting people outside of the track of a university.”
This year’s class includes five 21- and 22-year-olds pursuing a range of projects, from an app enabling you to watch box office movies in another language to identity verification software. Edtech wasn’t left out: Seventeen-year-old Zach Latta is Executive Director of hackEDU, a national nonprofit bringing coding clubs to high school students.
“A lot of the business and tech elite pay lip service to diversity, but insist that employees go to the same schools, and read the same books,” says Gibson. “The fellowship is about real diversity, and showing examples of fulfilling lives that are not based on going to elite colleges.”
Yet as the fellows’ backgrounds show, the Thiel Fellowship isn’t an alternative to the ivory tower as much as an additional path to success. Two of edtech’s own attended Ivy League universities before receiving the fellowship: Thinkful founder Dan Friedman is a former Yalie, and Zaption co-founder Charlie Stigler attended Columbia.
It's no guarantee of success, however. Hsu's educational gaming startup, Airy Labs, has gone through "big cuts" (and its website does not appear to be up to date at the time of writing). But the spotlight from participating in the program can give aspiring entrepreneurs a temporary boost over their peers in the classroom. The organization claims that the 80 current and former fellows have raised over $142 million in venture capital and have created 375 jobs.