Leave it to a billionaire to tell talented college students to call it quits. Peter Thiel, Facebook's first outside investor, is using a portion of his estimated $1.5 billion fortune to fund young entrepreneurs who drop out to start a business.
Specifically, Thiel has created a fellowship in which 20 entrepreneurs under the age of 20 have received $100,000 over two years to work on their business ideas. The Thiel Foundation will oversee the program, connecting students with a network of innovators to learn from.
Bad idea, Mr. Thiel. Really bad idea.
But it doesn't seem so at first. In an interview with USA TODAY, Thiel makes several important and cogent points. Student debt can be an albatross for twentysomethings. And while it's nice to have a college degree, having one certainly doesn't guarantee you a great job upon exiting school -- especially in today's economy.
I'm dating myself here, but when I exited college in 1991 (was it really that long ago?), the economy was in recession and the U.S. was at war. Grad school was my first and best option. Today, I'm glad for the additional degree, but would it really have hurt to be out exploring a Big Business Idea? Probably not.
Some great tech companies were born the year I decided to go back to school, including Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM ) , Open Text (Nasdaq: OTEX ) , and RF Micro Devices (Nasdaq: RFMD ) . Today, these businesses account for more than $21 billion in market value. They've enriched their founders and investors.
Thiel, to his credit, wants to encourage more of this type of entrepreneurship. His mistake is to think that ideas and youthful energy matter more than life experience. Yet I can understand why he thinks that. Silicon Valley's great mythology is built upon the shoulders of dropouts, including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who helped make Thiel a billionaire.
The truth about college
Far as I can tell, Thiel is erroneously equating college with vocational school. We don't send kids off to school just to learn a trade. We send them off to school to learn what it's like to be on their own while preserving just enough of a safety net so that mistakes made on campus lack the permanency they otherwise would if made out in the "real world."
Surely there are cases of young men and women who are wise beyond their years. But if you've seen the movie The Social Network and followed the history of Facebook, you also know that genius and immaturity mix all the time -- sometimes with devastating results. Funding genius before it has a chance to mature isn't necessarily a panacea.
Just ask Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , one of the world's most successful tech companies. Co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page both have undergrad degrees, and both left the Ph.D. program at Stanford to pursue Google as a business. More importantly, their company has a legendary reputation for emphasizing academic achievement in the recruiting process. Dropouts need not apply.
The truth about innovation
We also shouldn't forget that everyday need is just as big a driver of entrepreneurship. And it takes life experience to know what you need.
Consider Nike (NYSE: NKE ) . Track coach Bill Bowerman didn't dream of changing the running world before using rubber and a waffle iron to create the waffle-sole shoe that helped make Nike a must-have brand. He just wanted better equipment for his runners, which included Olympic distance star Steve Prefontaine. Bowerman was probably 60 when he invented the waffle-sole.
So what say we leave the kids alone to be, you know, kids for a while longer? There will always be outliers -- and if Thiel's program provides a home for these rebels, good -- but as a broad policy, I'm going to encourage my kids to go on to college, get some life experience, and earn a degree. They grow up too fast as it is.
Do you agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think about Thiel's plan and the value of college using the comments box below.
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