The Thiel Fellowship – Launching Your Project

with Danielle Strachman

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Danielle discusses how project-based learning promotes creativity and innovation.

Danielle Strachman

Thiel Fellowship Program Director, Cofounder of Innovations Academy

Lessons Learned

Dive into projects.

We want you to succeed, whether or not you are a fellow.

Parents: Take a small chunk of your college fund, and put it into your project fund.


Lesson: The Thiel Fellowship with Danielle Strachman

Step #2 Program: Danielle discusses how project-based learning promotes creativity and innovation

We encourage people who are younger to apply to get on our radar. So, if you're 12 and have something that you think is really neat, definitely let us know. When people apply it's an online application and they can send us links to their work and videos of what they're doing. They answer questions about what they're up to. It goes through a review process where multiple people will look at an application for the first round, and if we say, "Hey, we think there's something here. We want our mentor body and our fellow body to look at," the person will update their application and write to us about what is new, what's happened over the month or two, and then our mentors also review. We do a phone screening with people where there's both a technical interview as well as a community interview, because both of those pieces are really important.

Then lastly, we have a finalist round where we fly out the top 40 people. It's a very collaborative event. People come out and say, "Wow, I've never met people like me before. This is so much fun." Sometimes we've taken them on hunts, like puzzle hunts around the city and things like that. It's really just for fun, to see them working together and things like that.

We also do an interview with the foundation staff. They do a pitch session where they pitch an audience of mentors and fellows for two minutes, and this isn't a reality TV show, it's not to find out who's the best pitcher or something like that. It's just to tell the whole audience what you're up to. It's a way of saying, "Here's what I'm interested in. Here's what I think I would use these two years for." And then afterwards, we have a coffee shop-style interview session where mentors and fellows can go up to different tables and ask questions about what they're doing. Also, not just asking them questions, but trying to help them.

One thing that I'm really about is that the world needs really significant changes, and I don't really care if those changes come through a fellow or through a finalist or somebody else in our applicant pool. What I care about is that our community is trying to uphold those people no matter what happens in the process. So, I always tell the applicants, "If you had someone interview you and you think they'd would be a big help to you, keep reaching out to them." "If you met someone at the finalist round and they gave you their business card, follow up." These people want to help you succeed, no matter if you're a fellow or not.

Then from there, we do have to take the grueling task of choosing 20 people, we have to limit ourselves somewhere, and we deliberate for a week, the foundation staff does, and we announce who our new cohort will be. So, the one thing that makes me really happy though, is that we also have a secondary program called "The Thiel Foundation Summit" and the idea stemmed out of our finalist rounds of, "Wow, when we bring these young people together, they always say 'Wow. I never met people like me before who really understand why I'd be working on different projects while in school or why I'd be out of school and it not being questioned.'" and I thought, "I bet this extends down the pipeline." I don't think it's just the top 40 people thinking this way. That would be ridiculous. I've seen the quality of the applicants go up and up every year, so I know it's not just this small batch of people.

So, we put it out to our applicant pool and we actually also make it accessible to other people who haven't applied at all before to attend our Thiel Foundation Summit. They can apply online. Actually it's the same form that we have up right now for the fellowship as well. That group is age 23 and under and we have people who are 12 there and people who are 23 there. It's a great place for people to come and meet each other and be inspired by each other. People from co-founders and hirers there, lifelong friendships are starting to form, which is great. One notable quote from one of our summiters is, "I'm meeting people here that I want to do business with and who I want to have at my wedding." And I love that we're able to carry that familial attitude there instead of it just being a place to pass out business cards.

Our mentors come and are extremely generous with their time. They mentor people and do office hours and help them out. That program is supporting over 1,000 people right now. It's been really thrilling to be able to support a much larger body of young visionaries. The way that I see the fellowship is that fellows are really an archetype for what many other young people could do. I know it's easy to say that when we're handing them cash to do that, but a lot of aspects of the mentorships, developing people around you, finding your tribe are things that don't cost money to do. Being able to sit down and reflect with a mentor once a month about what you're doing and why you're doing it, that doesn't cost money either and that's actually, really, the biggest mainstay of our program.

One thing I've been trying to urge parents to do a little bit on that financial piece is take a small amount that you're putting toward that college fund and put it into a project fund, because we don't know exactly where schools are heading in the future and we've seen for a lot of young people that taking a gap year or taking some time to work on a project and see, "Where does this go," can be really, really wonderful for them, not only in the sense that this got them off on a business or a start-up and now they're doing so well, but even for those where it doesn't turn into something else. You learn a lot about yourself and your abilities in the world and what you really want to do by working on a project that's really real.

I like to say that reality is the best teacher because there's nothing fake about it. If you get an A or B on a test, and sometimes those grades can be really subjective if it's a history paper or English. It's all at the whim of the teacher. However, reality is a really great teacher because it will tell you, "Hey, I put up my product and I launched something and people haven't come towards it," or, "They have but they really like this one aspect of what I'm doing but not this other aspect. How interesting. So, I'll focus on that more."

So for even those people where it might not turn into something big, we've seen that taking that time to work on a project for about a year can really help them to focus on what they would want to do if they go to school or if they're looking for job opportunities or on their next project. So, I highly recommend it to anybody and I think that having parents being able to set aside some of that college fund to do that would be really helpful to future generations.

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