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My Weekend with 20 Under 20

I got the opportunity to spend this past weekend attending the Thiel “20 Under 20” Fellowship 2012 Mentor Match and Exhibition at the beautiful San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the program, the fellowship was the brainchild of ex-PayPal CEO Peter Thiel and gives $100K to 20 individuals under 20 years old every year to drop out of school and work on their own projects/companies for 2 years.

While I had met a couple of the fellows last year, I formally became a mentor for the program earlier this year, and one of the few formal obligations that come with that include attending the event and providing some of my opinions on the incoming batch of finalists.

It was a fascinating couple of days, with the first day being predominantly about meeting and learning about the talented set of 41 finalists vying for the fellowship and the second day being a chance for the finalists and the mentors to hear about what the current batch of fellows were up to and what they had learned after a year in the program.

While it’d be impossible to capture the entire experience down in a blog post, three things jumped out at me that I wanted to share:

  • This is the stuff great entrepreneurs are made of. While there are many market and business model factors that venture capitalists look for and analyze when thinking about investing, one of the most important things that we look for are character traits in the founders/executives that seem predisposed to “win big.” While different investors will have different (and oftentimes irrational sounding and contradictory) opinions on what that actually means, there tends to be general agreement that wildly successful entrepreneurs are very smart, extremely energetic, and somewhat-irrationally ambitious. Suffice to say, the vast majority of the finalists and the fellows had all three. It doesn’t guarantee they’ll be successful now or even in the future, but I can say that if these guys keep trying and keep thinking big, a reasonable number of them will find meaningful ways to impact the world around them, and it’s a great pleasure and an honor for me to be a witness and potentially play a part.
  • Related to my last point, many of the project proposals were refreshingly bold. While I can point to a number of cool projects (one oriented around using algae to extract carbon dioxide from car exhaust and one around creating a new way of producing medical radioisotopes jump immediately to mind), what I am really referring to is a lot more philosophical. The simple truth is that while experience (and, in my case, “borrowed” experience from colleagues and mentors older and wiser than me) can impart many lessons, it has a cynicism-inducing effect – it teaches you that certain things are “extremely difficult”, “impractical”, and other euphemisms for “you’d be crazy to try to do that.” Yet, therein lies the paradox – while experience is probably right the vast majority of the time, it is occasionally wrong – and you need people who are too inexperienced – read: young and ambitious — to appreciate that conventional wisdom that “it won’t work”. Its the potential of providing support for super-smart and “naively optimistic” young people that, to me, is the real potential of the fellowship program, and that’s why I find many of the project proposals refreshingly bold. It doesn’t mean I think many of them will succeed – after all, my experience tells me otherwise 🙂 — but gosh darn it, its people like these finalists and fellows who will prove experience wrong and make meaningful impact on the world.
  • It was also fascinating to see the differences between last year’s fellows and this year’s finalists. A very common theme from the fellows’ updates on how their past year have gone were around experience: mainly that raw smarts and ambition oftentimes need to be coupled with experience and understanding and open-mindedness to make a meaningful difference. Several of the fellows admitted to not achieving everything they thought they would, and quite a few even changed their projects (some several times!). Several of the fellows spoke about the great advice they received in talking with their mentors (both affiliated and unaffiliated with the program). If there was one thing that seemed universal for the fellows, it was that they all got a little taste of how challenging and complex it is to make a big impact and learned a great deal in the process, and I think it bodes well for what they will be able to do in the year to come.

In any event, I had a great time this weekend and definitely felt inspired. I look forward to more of these in the future and the chance to help some really cool people hopefully change the world for the better!

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