Backchannel | The Thiel Fellowship was created to prove that a college degree doesn’t matter. It became one of the most elite credentials for young entrepreneurs.
Jesse Leimgruber has 22 employees, and every last one is older than him. He tells me this over coffee at a downtown San Francisco Starbucks that is equidistant from his company’s coworking space and the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his girlfriend. Leimgruber is the CEO of NeoReach, a digital marketing tools firm he started in 2014 with his brother and a friend; they have raised $3.5 million so far, and last year they did over a million dollars in sales. He is 22.
Leimgruber is one of 29 people who make up this year’s class of Thiel Fellows — the crazy smart youth paid by Peter Thiel to double down on entrepreneurship instead of school. Leimgruber has dramatic eyebrows, longish hair, and the kind of earnest perma-grin that creeps across his face even when he’s trying to be serious. He speaks with the authority of a three-time CEO who has learned a lot on the job, explaining a challenge particular to fellows like him: “A common piece of advice is, don’t hire your peers; They probably aren’t qualified.”
Welcome to the 2016 version of Peter Thiel’s eponymous fellowship. What began as an attempt to draw teen prodigies to the Valley before they racked up debt at Princeton or Harvard and went into consulting to pay it off has transformed into the most prestigious network for young entrepreneurs in existence — a pedigree that virtually guarantees your ideas will be judged good, investors will take your call, and there will always be another job ahead even better than the one you have. “We look for extraordinary individuals and we want to back them for life,” says executive director Jack Abraham. He speaks with the conviction of a man who sold a company by age 25, has spent the entirety of his professional life in the cradle of the upswing of the technology revolution, and only just turned 30. With no irony, he adds: “We consider ourselves a league of extraordinary, courageous, brilliant individuals who should be a shining light for the rest of society.”
This is not what Thiel endeavored to build. In 2010, when he set out to take down higher education by plucking kids from the ivory towers of the Ivy League and transporting them to San Francisco, he had his eye on teenagers. In a hastily conceived plan that he announced at a San Francisco tech conference, Thiel said he’d pay $100,000 to 20 people under the age of 20 to drop out of school for two years, move to the Bay Area, and work on anything they wanted. His goal was to jumpstart the kind of big tech breakthroughs — walking on the moon, desktop computing — that he believed the contemporary Valley lacked. He also meant to prove that college was often counterproductive; it required kids to take on debt while laying out a set of overly prescriptive options for their futures. A college diploma, he once said, was “a dunce cap in disguise.”