December 14, 2011

The 20 Under 20 Fellowship

Jessica Kumari asks tech-entreprenuer Peter Thiel if college is really important.

Ben Yu: It wasn’t even a question of whether or not you’re going to college, it was choose the best college.

Jessica: And 19-year-old Ben Yu did just that. After graduating high school, he began his freshman year of college at Harvard University.

Ben: I was on the science track. I would’ve gone through Harvard in four years, likely go to masters program, PhD program, post grad program. Ten years of school later, I come out and work in a lab thirty years and retire.

Jessica: But Ben left Harvard and a $200,000 scholarship.

So, what caused Ben to get off the path? A competition called the Theil Fellowship 20 Under 20.

Twenty teams or individuals under the age of 20 could win $100,000 to start their own companies if they had a great idea. The catch? You cannot be in college.

Ben: I stepped back and said, ‘Why am I limiting myself to that specific track and choices within that track as opposed to looking at other options?’

Jessica: Ben is now living in San Francisco and developing a website that helps people find the cheapest prices for certain goods.

Another fellowship winner, Jim Danielson, is building an engine for electric vehicles. Nineteen-year-old Alex Kiselev hopes the medical device he is creating will cure cancer. And 17-year-old Laura Deming wants to keep people from getting old.

If you find cure for aging, how long do you expect humans to live?

Laura Deming: If we find a cure, then forever.

Jessica: Forever?

Why no college? We asked the contest’s founder, billionaire and entrepreneur Peter Theil.

And so, with your fellowship, why can’t the winners, why can’t they do both? Why can’t they go to college and be part of your fellowship?

Peter Theil: For all this businesses, there often is just particular time and place in history when they are really going to work. The people who start Facebook out of Harvard in their sophomore year in 2004, had they waited until they graduated in 2006, I don’t think they would have had the opportunity to start a social networking company. It was just that one moment in history when the time was exactly right and they built out that business.

Jessica: Well, you went to Stanford. You got a law degree from there. You sometimes teach there. What do say to the people who accuse you of being a hypocrite?

Theil: Well, I feel I’m in a bit of a catch-22 situation because if I went to school, people accuse you of being a hypocrite. If I had not gone to school, people would say I was an ignoramus and who knows what I’ve missed out on. So, I think that all I’m saying is that it’s not the right answer for everybody.”

Jessica: Theil believes the U.S. needs more innovators and entrepreneurs, or people who come up with new ideas or companies. He says the economic problems of this country can be solved by technological breakthroughs, meaning if a few people come up with big ideas and innovations, the profits will ripple through the U.S. economy and provide more jobs for Americans.

Theil: If there’s no technological progress, nothing works in our society. The future will be worse, the government’s going to go broke. And so, this is why I think the question of technology and technological progress is incredibly important for all sorts of issues and areas in our society that people normally don’t even connect together with it. And that’s why I’m so focused on trying to get that engine restarted and accelerated.

Shamus Khan: There are 300 million people in the U.S. Giving twenty of them $100,000 and thinking they’re going to revolutionize the world is really naïve.

Jessica: Shamus Khan is a Columbia University sociologist who studies wealth. He says most Americans don’t benefit from entrepreneurs.

Couldn’t you argue that this fellowship is creating entrepreneurs who create innovative ideas and that can only be good for the U.S.?

Khan: In my view, innovation, work innovation, productivity comes not from a single genius who is going to change the world but instead from people who are working in jobs day in day out. They see from doing the job ways that things may be improved or made better. If you want to make America a better place, you don’t invest in twenty people, you invest in 2 million people. The best way to invest in 2 million people is to invest in their education.

Jessica: Today, the average college senior graduates with more than $20,000 of debt and no guarantee of a job. So, is college worth it?

Khan: Twenty thousand dollars in debt sounds like a lot. But if you’re going to make 80% more than someone who didn’t go to college, then it’s pretty much worth it.

Jessica: Khan is right. Over a lifetime, a college graduate will earn about a million dollars more than a high school graduate. The unemployment rate of a college grad is also lower than those with just a high school diploma.

But Theil argues statistics don’t always show everything. And it is not necessarily the college education in college that makes people successful but that the type of person who does well in college and is willing to stick it out to graduate is also the type of person who would naturally have skills to be successful.

Theil: The safe thing does seem to be college, but the risk with going to college is that there are some incredible things that you might have to contribute that you’ll get tracked away from.

Jessica: And that is a risk Ben wasn’t willing to take.

Ben: I think most groundbreaking innovations that have propelled America and the world forward have been spearheaded by individuals. We can look back to Einstein, Newton, to Franklin to Ford to Rockefeller. You find these individuals who really shine in moving things forward. And I think, ultimately, if we can increase the number of people who do that, that really trickles down to benefit everyone.

Jessica: A Harvard study found 82% of the time, first time entrepreneurs fail. That doesn’t scare you?

Ben: It doesn’t scare me. I felt that if I had actually followed through on my passion and failed then I’m ok with that because I did want I wanted to. But if I didn’t then I’d be haunted by never knowing the path I could have gone.

Jessica: Jessica Kumari, Channel One News.


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