The Thiel Fellowship – Launching Your Project

with Danielle Strachman

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Learn about Danielle's background in education, and innovation.

Danielle Strachman

Thiel Fellowship Program Director, Cofounder of Innovations Academy

Lessons Learned

Homeschoolers changed my life.

The Fellowship was conceived on a plane with Peter and his colleagues.

Today, instead of leaving school and serving a mission, students leave and serve their debt.


Lesson: The Thiel Fellowship with Danielle Strachman

Step #10 Danielle: Learn about Danielle's background in education, and innovation

My background is actually sort of untraditional. A lot of people assume that I have a degree in education, I actually don't. I did go to school, went to a four-year university and I studied performance music and psychology, but I always had a drive and a love for education. And knew that it could look different, but I didn't know exactly what that would look like.

After I finished college, I actually decided to get off of the academic track and I decided to start my own tutoring business. I had always loved working with people, especially one-on-one. And it was through doing that educational consulting that I ended up meeting home schoolers, and those people really, really changed my life. I think it's a misnomer that people often think, "Home schooling means school at home and textbooks and not a very dynamic environment." But the people that I was working with were doing co-ops and were taking their kids on field trips, and traveling. And these were not necessarily high socioeconomic status people either, these were people just making do with what they had and providing what they could for their children.

And they were really, really inspiring. Not only the kids, because they were insatiable learners, but the parents also were really interesting people, sort of going to the beat of their own drummer. And through working with home schoolers, I ended up meeting a woman named Christine Coughlin, who I ended up co-founding a school with. And we said, "What in home schooling could we take to a larger scale in a school setting?" Because there's a lot of people who would like to have alternative education, but don't think that they can provide it themselves, or don't have the means to be able to do so. So we decided to take some of the things that we think work best in some of the co-ops that we had been in, like project-based learning, relationship-based teaching, really knowing your students, and bringing that into the classroom.

And so she and I started Innovations Academy, which is a public charter school in San Diego, it’s K through 8. And to explain charter schools a little bit, it's sort of the best of both worlds. Where you have something that is almost like a private institution where we control our curriculum, we do our own hiring and firing, the most important thing is that we have our own mission and philosophy. However, it's at the public school price, so people don't have to pay for it because it's funded with public dollars and it's open to anybody who wants to come. So there's not an admissions department or anything like that.

So we started that back in 2006, and to date we have 350 kids at our school. I'm still on the board of directors and I was one of the directors of the school with my colleague, Christine, for two years, which was an amazing experience. And in the future we're looking at expansion. Whether that's a high school or another K through 7, we're not sure yet. But I had done that.

Then I moved up to the Bay Area and I wasn't really sure what I was going to do, but I knew that I wanted to do something that had to do with recreating education because that's always been my passion and calling. And as I've followed that, it's guided me to great opportunities. And I got a call one day from someone at the foundation who I know, Lindy Fishburne, and she said, "The foundation has kicked off this program, The Thiel Fellowship." And I had heard about it, I had seen people posting about it on Facebook and in the news and things like that. And I just thought they must have somebody who's running it because that's the way I work. I'm very logical, point A-point B sort of person, and I figured they just had that.

And she said, "They just kicked it off, they thought of the idea on a plane, they launched it the next day, they're hasn't been a pilot, we're just going on this." And she told me more about it and I met with the president of the foundation and I asked him what their hopes were for the fellowship and what was in place. And it was a really beautiful blank slate because I love creating and building things. And so it was great to be able to come into something, bring my background from the home schooling world and alternative education, and build out a program that we're now very, very proud of.

The fellowship was conceived on a plane with Peter and his colleagues. They were talking about tech stagnation and why haven't the dreams that we had from the 1970s coming true. "Where's my flying car?" is sort of the funny quip to it. But one of the things that they talked about was that college debt is so staggering for young people that now, instead of leaving school serving a mission, you're serving your debt. And it's really hard to do that, and you have to get a job right away. And maybe you can't be choosy about it, and maybe you just have to take what comes to you.

And I think what happens for a lot of young people is they say, "Hey, I'm going to go into something lucrative, like investment banking, and then I'll do what I love later." But as we all know, as time goes on, once you have a certain income or a certain lifestyle, you get used to that and it's harder to go back and say, "Oh, I'm going to do something else now." It gets harder when you get married, and then have a family, and stay on that track.

So this was an idea to say, "What if we gave people about the same amount that it would take to pay to go to school, give people that money, and see what else happened?" Not just with the money, but with the freedom to say, "You're in charge now; you can really do what you want. We're going to guide you here, but we're not going to tell you what to do, how to do it." Lots of guidance, of course, but they're the decision makers and they're really in the driver seat. And for some of them, they don't even have a driver's license. So it's an exciting time.

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