Thiel’s Five Percent
You’ve heard it before: Student enrolls at Harvard, student develops business idea, student drops out.
But the story runs differently for Sujay Tyle and Connor Zwick, formerly of the classes of 2013 and 2015, respectively. Unlike their predecessors, they were given $100,000 and some of the best connections in the business world when they left Harvard. Each applied for a Thiel Fellowship and was among the fewer than five percent of applicants accepted.
In 2011 and 2012, Tyle and Zwick packed their bags and joined the ranks of the 20 individuals under the age of 20 selected annually by billionaire Peter A. Thiel, founder and CEO of PayPal and first external investor of Facebook. They launched their careers as entrepreneurs—with Thiel’s help, of course.
Along with co-founder James O’Neill, Thiel developed the fellowship to encourage young entrepreneurs to consider routes that are alternative to traditional forms of higher education. “What we want to suggest,” Thiel explained in a 2011 interview with the National Review, “is that there are some very smart and very talented people who don’t need college.”
But Tyle and Zwick’s diverse experiences suggest that a college education may not be dispensible, even for a Thiel fellow.
Tyle describes his experience with the Thiel Fellowship as “kind of cool and crazy and wild.” Although few of his classmates were aware of his true age, Tyle started as a freshman at Harvard when he was 15 years old. By the time he dropped out as a junior, he had found a blocking group of close friends, gained membership into the Owl Club—and engaged in six years of groundbreaking biofuel research.
When he first left Harvard for the fellowship, Tyle was eager to gain real-world experience at Scopely, a Silicon Valley mobile gaming startup. He discovered that, for the first time in his life, he wasn’t always the youngest person in the room, and that his status as a dropout was immaterial to his co-workers.
Yet as Tyle searched for engineers for Scopely, he realized the recruiting process needed to change. After finding like-minded entrepreneurs at a conference in Ireland, Tyle left Scopely to start a business designed to fix the problems he encountered, looking to “revolutionize the world of… technical recruiting.”
The fellowship provides him with an incredible support system that allows Tyle to be in constant communication with Thiel. “We’re on a texting relationship,” Tyle explains.
His connections as a fellow don’t stop there: “On Monday, we all went to Peter’s house and met a bunch of Facebook executives and, you know, the co-founders of the biggest companies in the world,” Tyle says, describing a typical retreat Thiel holds monthly for his fellows; he goes on to detail a past trip to Hawaii and a future trip planned for Tahoe.
Although Tyle was named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” innovators for games and apps this past December, he hasn’t forgotten his Crimson roots. He is quick to credit the school for much of his success, stressing the importance of his Harvard education.
“I would never have been able to do anything that I’m doing right now without having gone to Harvard for two and a half years,” Tyle says. For him, the Thiel Fellowship meant exploring opportunities outside of Cambridge, and “not allowing education to stifle entrepreneurship.”
When Zwick left Harvard last year with Colton Gyulay, who was also in the class of 2015, to design a handheld mobile gaming device called the Coco Controller, he had been contemplating studying Romance Languages.