Silicon Valley fellowship: Get ahead by dropping out

For a kid who doesn’t have his driver’s licence yet, Sujay Tyle, 17, is quite accomplished. Almost freakishly so.

In addition to being among the youngest sophomores at Harvard, Tyle has already begun to make a name for himself in sustainable energy. In fact, he got his start in scientific research at the age of 11, when he asked JH David Wu, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Rochester, if he could work in his lab. For about five years, Sujay helped Professor Wu after school and during the summers to discover a new enzyme that could make bio-ethanol easier to commercialise.

A member of the first cohort of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellows Sujay must drop out of school to accept the prize—a controversial requirement to the fellowship. Photo courtesy: Bernice Yeung

For his contributions to the research, Sujay's won a slew of national US awards, ranging from the 2008 President's Environmental Youth Awards to the grand prize at the 2009 International Sustainable World Energy Olympiad.

But he’s no one-dimensional science geek. Sujay and his older brother Sheel, an analyst at the venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners, co-founded a humanitarian organisation called ReSight, which combats preventable blindness in India. And then, in his spare time, Sujay plays tennis, cricket, and cooks seven-course gourmet meals.

Clearly, there’s nothing average about Sujay. “He’s very ambitious and very aggressive in pursuing knowledge,” Prof Wu said of his former student. “The maturity and vigorousness with which he pursues things is actually beyond his age.”

But as a member of the first cohort of the “20 Under 20 Thiel Fellows,” which were announced on Tuesday, Sujay must drop out of school to accept the prize—a controversial requirement to the fellowship.

Sponsored by PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, the fellowship provides mentorship and $100,000 over two years to innovators under the age of 20. But the programme, like most things related to Thiel, has sparked some charged online sparring.

A higher-education bubble?

Thiel announced the “20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship” in the fall of 2010 to respond to what he calls the higher-education “bubble,” which he says is elitist and exclusionary. (It should be noted that Thiel has two degrees from Stanford.)

“If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?” he told TechCrunch. “It’s something about the scarcity and the status. In education your value depends on other people failing. Whenever Darwinism is invoked it’s usually a justification for doing something mean. It’s a way to ignore that people are falling through the cracks, because you pretend that if they could just go to Harvard, they’d be fine. Maybe that’s not true.”

Sujay and his older brother Sheel, co-founded an NGO called ReSight, which combats preventable blindness in India. Screen grab from Resight

His solution? Mimic the opportunities that Ivy League schools provide their students by throwing money and connections at promising young entrepreneurs, who are required to drop out of school to develop a business instead.

“The goal is two-fold,” explained Jonathan Cain of the Thiel Foundation, which awards the fellowships. “One is to foster more technological innovation and entrepreneurship, and the other goal is to help young people not just fall into the standard track where you do well in high school and then you go to college, and you do well in college, and then you go to law school or med school—the standard, safe things. More broadly, we hope people think more about what they want to do and ask themselves, 'Is college the best way to achieve what I want?' We are certainly not denigrating education or the value of learning.”

But scholars like UC Berkeley’s Vivek Wadhwa argue that the whole concept is misguided. In response to the fellowship, he has written that he believes education is “absolutely necessary in order for you to build a foundation for success” and that the “message Thiel is sending to the world with his fellowship, which rewards students for dropping out of school, is wrong. The best path to success is not to drop out of college; it is to complete it.”

“You gain a lot of knowledge other than writing computer codes in college,” Wadhwa told Firstpost. “You learn how to deal with people, you learn important social skills, how to respect other people, how to deal with rejection and failure, and how to become human beings rather than money-hungry geeks. This is American vanity and stupidity at its worse.”

Wadhwa also finds the underlying concept of the fellowship impractical, except for the rare few. “My advice to the fellows is to do it for six months to a year and if it’s not working, go right back to school,” he said. “If one of them does become Mark Zuckerberg, then great, but the rest should cut their losses as soon as they can. Try getting into any company started by a college dropout: Apple, Microsoft or Facebook, and unless have a degree, you won’t get a job interview. That tells you something.”

Taking the plunge

But Sujay Tyle, whose parents immigrated to the US from India for graduate school, is jumping at the opportunity to drop out in the name of entrepreneurship. He’ll start the Thiel Fellowship later this year after he spends the summer as an analyst at a hedge fund in New York City. He’ll then move to San Francisco to continue working on developing sustainable energy sources; his fellowship bio says he’s “passionate about hacking cellulose to create cheap biofuels.”

When it comes to the higher-education debate launched by the fellowship, Sujay said he doesn’t see a conflict between leaving school and his love for education. “My opinion is that education has shifted,” he said. Whether or not a student is part of a university setting or not, "a student needs to carve his own path. I’m pretty passionate about education, but unfortunately, students just aren’t that motivated and it’s almost become a line on your resume,” Sujay said.

And as a practical matter, Sujay said that since he’s so much younger than his peers, it’s an “opportunity to explore a career I want, which is being an entrepreneur, and if it doesn’t go well and I come back to school, I’ll be the same age and even a little younger than everyone else, and that’s fine with me.”

Sheel, his older brother, wholeheartedly supports Sujay’s decision. “This is not a question of whether education is valuable or not; there is no question that it is valuable,” said Sheel, who will receive an undergraduate degree from Stanford in three weeks. “But this fellowship is aiming to show that there are many different kinds of education, and for people with certain ambitions, hands-on experience may be just as beneficial as the learning that happens in the classroom.”

Parents ‘apprehensive’

Through their example, Sujay's parents have promoted the virtues of education to their sons. After arriving in the US, his mother, Tanu, received a master’s degree in architecture and his father, Praveen, earned a PhD in pharmaceutics.

“Education is very valued by my parents,” Sheel said. “Everything they have built in the US stems from education: It led to jobs, to income so they could provide for us in a tremendous way. But they always pushed my brother in a positive way that allowed him to be a creative thinker.”

Sujay’s parents are understandably both delighted and “apprehensive” about the Thiel Fellowship. “This is a different paradigm from what I grew up with," Praveen said.

But Praveen said that times have changed, and he sees the fellowships as a way to supplement Sujay’s traditional education. “The way my wife and I have thought about it is that we are living in an era where technology and science is driving the decisions for this younger generation,” he said. “They are part of the technology revolution generation—everyday, something new is coming out. They have to live in this era, so for them to be immersed in this revolutionary area of technology, they have to see what is going on out there. There’s a practical side of learning about technology and innovation that comes with the two-year fellowship.”

And Praveen also expects his son to eventually receive a university degree. “I hope, and I currently have his full commitment, that he will finish his degree and then beyond that, whatever other higher education he wants to do,” he said. “For the short term, this provides a platform for him to learn and make mistakes, and perhaps succeed and do something good for society.”

Praveen’s biggest concern is there’s no way to know how long a detour Sujay will take from college. “I hope he gets into a meaningful project which is sustainable in the short term and the long term and that is good for society," he said. "These elements are not easy to do in two years, and I hope he will go back to the educational system with the same enthusiasm. Maybe he doesn’t succeed in the short term, but will he sacrifice his education for long-term [business] success? That is the concern, and it can only be seen in a function of time.”

Published Date: May 27, 2011 07:44 am | Updated Date: Dec 15, 2011 06:58 pm