New Fellowship Pays For College Kids To Drop Out

Originally published on May 26, 2011 5:43 pm
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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Welcome to the program.

NORRIS: Michele, thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Now, I want to give you a chance first to lay out your idea. Explain this 20 Under 20 Fellowship. Everyone, as I understand, gets $100,000 over two years.

NORRIS: Exactly. So we were basically brainstorming a few months ago, talking about what we needed to do to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship, so we targeted it at 20 people aged 20 or younger. We ended up picking 24. There were so many phenomenal applicants. And looking at the candidates and what they were trying to do, it really gives you a sense of incredible optimism about the future.

NORRIS: What you're doing is almost like a different kind of version of a genius grant, but there's a piece of this that has gotten a lot of attention. Because I think people wonder why young people can't pursue their dreams and pursue higher education at the same time. Why do they have to step off that track?

NORRIS: So, you know, I think the Facebook example is one that's been exaggerated and lot's been written about it. But had the people who started Facebook decided to stay at Harvard, they would not have been able to build the company and by the time they graduated in 2006, that window probably would have come and gone.

NORRIS: It's interesting though that you're promoting this idea because you're a college grad, you're a lawyer with a degree from Stanford, and I assume that you would assert that you benefited greatly from your own education.

NORRIS: The way I was thinking about it when I was a 17-year-old senior applying to college was I don't know what I'm going to do with my life. I'm just going to go to college. When I was a 21-year-old senior in college, it was I don't know what I'm going to do. I'll go to law school. And there was a way in which education and the university system was sort of a substitute for thinking about what I would do with my life.

NORRIS: More than 400 applications. More than 24 people have received Thiel Foundation grants. Can you tell us about some of them?

NORRIS: Jim Danielson is a student at Purdue, sophomore. He's designed a new electric motor for building more efficient electric vehicles. And one of the challenges he has is if he stays in college, a lot of the intellectual property would actually go to the university.

NORRIS: One last quick question before I let you go: When you were in school - and if you were to receive an award like this - how do you think you'd sell this idea to your parents? What do you think they'd think about you dropping out of school...

NORRIS: Well, I think they would have thought...

NORRIS: ...or stopping out of school?

NORRIS: So, a lot of the parents started quite skeptical, although they were more open-minded than they would have been in 2007 or in 1987 when I went to school, and they ended up being quite supportive.

NORRIS: Peter Thiel, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

NORRIS: Michele, thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Peter Thiel is a co-founder of PayPal and he's an early investor in Facebook. And he's behind the Thiel Foundation, which is giving out grants of $100,000 to students who pursue technologies of the future. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.