The Thiel Fellowship – Launching Your Project

with Danielle Strachman

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Danielle discusses how the Thiel Fellowship selects its winners, prioritizing people over projects.

Danielle Strachman

Thiel Fellowship Program Director, Cofounder of Innovations Academy

Lessons Learned

We believe in conscious decision-making.

We select people, not ideas.

We want forward thinking applicants, with the abiity to organize something.


Lesson: The Thiel Fellowship with Danielle Strachman

Step #4 Applicants: Danielle discusses how the Thiel Fellowship selects its winners, prioritizing people over projects

Talking about which projects really excite us and which projects don't excite us and things like that, one thing that we learned very quickly in the first year of the fellowship was that people end up understandably needing to switch their projects sometimes because you're working on something, and maybe you have a huge, huge idea but you need to start at a smaller scale to be able to learn the knowledge, you need to learn how to build a team, how to get fundraising, all these different things. Some fellows stick to their main project for two years, and some of them switch projects and both are completely fine. What we're really about for anybody's life is conscious decision making and saying, "Hey this is the right thing for me to be doing right now."

When we're looking at projects through the application period, one thing we keep in mind is that what the person is applying with may not be the thing that they end up doing and in fact maybe even 50-50 on it. What we're really looking at is the person and their past execution ability and the types of things that they have liked to do. I think for someone who is 12 years old who's outside the scope of our application period but sometimes we get this coming in saying like, "Hey I want to start a cupcake factory or something like that." I love that someone who is so young is thinking about this. It's definitely not the type of thing that we're looking for. But at the same time we also know that the projects are going to change over time. It's really more about the person and if they can hold that vision that we're looking for.

It's oftentimes someone who isn't tied to a larger vision for what they're doing or where they're going that we say, "This doesn't seem like the type of person we’re\re looking for or like the type of person that we're best able to support." versus this project is like a good or a bad project just because we know that so much is going to change. Even during the application period, each round is about a month and so we always go back to the candidate and say, "Hey what's going on with your project now." And many times they'll say, "Oh my goodness, my project, I thought I was going to be able to get by this barrier and I couldn't" or, "Hey it's going great, we've accelerated," and so just a lot even changes during the application period itself.

We really, really try to look at, do they have the character and the traits that we look for somewhat regardless of what the project is. We like people to present us with a project so we can get a better understanding for the way that they think about things and where they might go with their fellowship. But we're not tied to it like, "Oh yes, this is your project and it's a good project so you would make a good fellow." It's much more, "You have the characteristics of someone that we're looking for. You're showing that you have some execution ability. You're showing that you have a potential road map for what you've used these two years for and let's see what happens from there."

People who can also show us that they do have some idea of what they could use the time for; they can even show us multiple things that they could use the time for. It gives us an idea that this person has forward thinking ability and the ability to plan and organize something.

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