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So, How Are Those Thiel Fellows Doing?

Not great, argues Vivek Wadhwa, which might have something to teach us about the value of college for entrepreneurs.
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A quick scan of the headlines is enough to convince most people of a couple of things: sky high university tuition creates scandalous levels of debt and hardship while entrepreneurship creates wealth and innovation.

It’s a short leap to the conclusion that promising young people should ditch getting a diploma and go straight to starting up instead, so it’s probably no surprise that everyone from business blogs to Will Smith spawn Jaden Smith has publicly called for kids to skip college. But the granddaddy of all the university doubters is PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel who made a huge media splash with his Thiel Fellows program that pays a couple dozen young people $100,000 to drop out of school and pursue their entrepreneurial dreams instead.

Three years into the program, how’s that working out, former entrepreneur and current Stanford and Singularity University lecturer Vivek Wadhwa asked recently on LinkedIn.

In short: meh. 

He argues that the results have been underwhelming with some Fellows pursuing gimmicky projects that fall far short of world-changing (hello, caffeine spray!), while others doing more substantive work like Eden Full have returned to academics. At least one fellow has gotten in hot water for pretending to run a company while his parents and brother did all the work. Want hard numbers? They’re no more encouraging when compared with other top tier incubators:

It is certain that the survival rates of Thiel startups pale in comparison with those emerging from Y-Combinator and TechStars-;both of which provide hand-holding and mentorship as the Thiel program does. Of the 129 companies that TechStars (which publishes its success rates), for instance, has accepted over the past three years-;in the same timeframe as Thiel-; 98% are still in operation, and 69% were able to raise venture capital.

So what’s the takeaway here for Wadhwa? Maybe college isn’t so useless after all and maybe the ideal startup founder isn’t a callow 20-year-old college dropout. “The reality is that a bachelors degree is an important foundation for success for most entrepreneurs. Yes, a few, such as Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Gates were able to achieve success after dropping out. But they surrounded themselves with very competent adults-;and they were very lucky,” he writes. “After three years, Peter Thiel’s experiment is beginning to prove that there are no shortcuts to success.”

As horrifying and glaringly-in-need-of reform as college costs are, the data are still on Wadhwa’s side. One three of the 50 highest paid tech CEOs are college dropouts and graduates can expect to earn somewhere around $1 million more in their lives compared to those with just a high school diploma, according to the Census Bureau.  Sure, there are exceptions but the statistics don’t lie about the odds for most kids who don’t finish college. And that’s to say nothing about the value to people as individuals and citizens of engaging with history, literature and thorny questions of meaning, power and purpose (college isn’t all keg stands and resume prep after all, or at least it shouldn’t be).

Do you agree with Wadwha that the underwhelming performance of Thiel Fellows thus far speaks to the value of a college degree?

 

Last updated: Sep 25, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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