A few days ago, in Sunday's New York Times, I read about Peter Thiel, the 44-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur and PayPal founder who created the Thiel Fellowship which supports young people with a $100,000, two-year stipend if they forego college to pursue their own ideas. I have to admit I love this.
Thiel Fellows are driven young people whose minds process information differently. They are problem-solvers and creative thinkers. They are young people whose ideas challenge or compliment current systems and, when nurtured in the resource-rich Thiel Fellowship network, stand to offer us worlds more than if their minds were confined to the halls of higher education.
Thiel basically returns an educational alternative to a system whose one-stop-shop approach may not work for everyone. Thiel offers 20 bright young people each year the chance to pursue their new ideas with 100 of the most innovative and best thinkers in Silicon Valley as their mentors -- supported learning, apprenticeship, and on-the-job training without real life pressures. Thiel Fellows excel because these kids' minds are still completely free to see possibility where it may not be evident and they are given enough structure to support their creative thinking.
My love of the Thiel Fellowship is not at the expense of college as an option for 90% of young people. Seven years ago I built an educational nonprofit called Hollywood Arts. Hollywood Arts used arts-based learning to mainstream homeless and foster care youth over the age of 18. Our goal was, among other things, to prepare our students for higher education and we partnered with the local community college to help facilitate this.
The concept behind Hollywood Arts was game-changing, for all its simplicity. The director of the Ashoka Foundation flew to Los Angeles from DC to see Hollywood Arts in action because there was the possibility that the idea could work nationally. Despite our success with this population, explaining how access to the arts was as important as food and shelter to changing the lives of high-risk youth was a difficult concept for people to understand.
Even though I created an organization that linked youth to college, I myself didn't finish my Bachelors degree until I was 31. I was a bartender/artist/traveler in my 20s and I truly believe that the idea for Hollywood Arts came out of my having spent so many years not in school and not learning how to think.
Seeing possibility where others may not is where every idea starts. Some of those ideas start revolutions, others fail, but they all bring us somewhere new.
The young people applying to be Thiel Fellows are already passion-driven, innovative thinkers... but I think the real story here is how we look at encouraging creative thinking in all kids. College is an important tool for many young people. College is the stepping-stone that helps many learn responsibility, experience adulthood and expand on what was learned in high school. But college may also bind free-thinking for some and confine young people who are not ready for, or in need of, all the institutional rules.
Hats off to Peter Thiel for championing an alternative way to educate. Often the best thinking comes to those minds which are free to see the world differently, and sometimes the best learning comes from doing. This is an idea which could start its own economic revolution for the United States.