From the Crowd

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What to make of Peter Thiel's "20 Under 20″ program

June 2, 2011: 9:51 AM ET

Is higher education a prerequisite for entrepreneurship, or is it okay to encourage the best and brightest to drop out?

By Mark Suster, contributor

Several people have been asking me to weigh in publicly on the "20 under 20″ initiative announced by Peter Thiel, in which he will award up to $100,000 to 20 people under the age of 20 who agree immediately to pursue entrepreneurship (the implication of which is that they'd drop out of university to do so). Thiel and friends will also agree to mentor these young entrepreneurs. Here is their inaugural class.

So is this a good idea? My 2 cents:

1. This is a worthy goal and I applaud Peter Thiel
Anybody that it trying to to create a new model for education and innovation ought to be lauded, not attacked. We have a severe shortage of talented engineers in this country, for example, and science doesn't seem to garner as much attention in the U.S. as it does in some other countries. Read the opening quote from his initial press release on the program …

"Warning that America's long term economic prospects are uncertain without radical innovation in technology, Peter Thiel this week launched the Thiel Fellowship to foster the next generation of tech visionaries."

That's a goal I can get behind. And is it really that radical? He's going to hand select a group of 20 very high potential individuals with really high IQs and offer them the exact same kind of "social proof" that one gets from graduating from Harvard or working for McKinsey. Actually, they'll get even more attention because this selection will put them in an even more exclusive peer group and will introduce them to even more connected mentors.

So I don't mourn for their lost youth or their downside consequences if their businesses doesn't succeed. In a way, they've already "made it."

2. Do not try this at home
What worries me about "20 under 20″ is not Peter Thiel, but the potential for lesser-quality knock-offs. For example, we now have some very well established incubation programs run by high-caliber mentors including IdeaLab, yCombinator, TechStars, BetaWorks and Launchpad LA. Suddenly everybody wants to be an incubator. I get approached literally every week by some new person with no real outstanding track record wanting to launch yet another incubator. You know how this ends.

So while "20 under 20″ might encourage 5-10 similar initiative,s I think the broader message isn't necessarily the right one. Just because I think that it's OK that a group of 20 Mensa candidates is hand-selected to have access and guidance doesn't mean it's the right answer for the masses. It probably isn't. When students drop out of a middle-tier university to join an also-ran copycat program of "20 under 20″ -- and when their startups aren't successful -- they will likely find themselves in employment no-man's-land. That's not wise. Especially if they have one or two years of college debt accumulated.

3. The value of a college education
I am very passionate about the value of education. Yet, ironically, it's not always the classroom experience that provides all of the value. Going to college is about creating independence. It's about discovering who you are as a human being. What you think. Whom your lifetime friends will be. It's about exploration. Having fun. Trying all sorts of new things. Gaining new skills. Education is self discovery.

And I'm on record as saying that I learned more about leadership from becoming president of my fraternity than I did in any classroom. I was prepared way more for business success in my political science classes than in my economics ones (I was a double major). In political science I learned critical thinking and writing. I also become interested in geopolitics, which led me to a life of wanting to travel and work in different locations. I subsequently lived abroad for 11 years in 5 countries and worked in 9 countries. That would never have come if I had been more single-minded at 18.

Single minded is good for some. Not for others. Actually, not for many. As humans we need empathy. We need to draw on multiple disciplines to make better decisions. We need to study humanities, religion, politics, biology, economics as well as computer science. We become more rounded individuals.

4. The challenges of a system that aims to educate all equally
I still struggle with our college education system in the U.S. I'm not sure how much sense it makes to be graduated from a fourth-tier university with an esoteric major. I somehow think a system that goes back to a model of "apprenticeships" or "trade guilds" might churn out people more ready for the workforce. But the other problem is equally important – not graduating students starting life with large amounts of debt. If you're graduating without the perfect credentials and without the right skills for employment yet you have debt accumulated over 4-5 years you're already starting life on the wrong foot. I worry that we create people who start their careers as indentured servants.

So while college needs to be an option for all, there has to be a middle ground between a 4-year university degree and somebody only employable in a low-income job. This is where training programs come into play. Maybe 2 years of computer training would suit some people better than 4 years of book study? Maybe off-shoring could become more on-shoring and helping drum up employment in places like Detroit.

5. Would I ever encourage anybody to drop out of his or her education?
99.9% of the time where people ask whether I think they ought to stay in school the answer is "yes." If I'm counseling young people I often coach them to consider getting degrees that will be practical for becoming more employable when they graduate. But stay in school. Experience life. Discover who you are. Get that piece of paper that shows the workforce that you have a degree of discipline to start and finish something.

But the truth is that there are outliers and I think that in my gut I feel the same way I imagine Peter does. I'll give you a real world example: A friend of mine is currently pursuing a joint JD/MBA at Stanford. He graduated from Harvard undergrad. He's already built several tech/media businesses and I know he is talented enough to do something significant in life – whatever he chooses. He is torn between finishing his degrees and starting his next entrepreneurial endeavor 3 years earlier (he is finished with year 1 of 4). He doesn't want to practice law. What I said to him was,

"You've already got the credentials for success. You have the Harvard undergrad. You built a company at 22. You were accepted to Stanford Law School AND Stanford Graduate School of Business. That's enough. Anything else you do in life you will always have that calling card. Being a graduate of SLS or Stanford GSB won't give you anything else that you don't already have. You're not looking to practice law. You don't need a network.

You're more entrepreneurial than 99% of people in any b-school class. You have a stated goal of building your company. You're not going to learn anything in that classroom that you wouldn't learn better by doing at your next company. You have no debts to pay off. Why wouldn't you start now?"

6. And finally …
I don't care whether you graduated from college or not. If you're excellent at what you do (coding, sales, marketing, leadership) and you can demonstrate that, it doesn't matter to me if you dropped out of college. At least not as an entrepreneur. And I can attest to this because one of my leading developers at both of my startups never finished college. It never affected him when it was time to check in his code and I'd hire him again in a second.

Mark Suster (@msuster) joined VC firm GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. He blogs at www.Bothsidesofthetable.com

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