Danielle Strachman, program director of the Thiel Fellowship, poses at the recent Under 20 Summit in New York City. The Summits “enable young entrepreneurs and visionaries to learn from, collaborate and inspire each other,” she says.
The West Coast has Silicon Valley. The East has New York City’s up-and-coming Silicon Alley.
For the weekend of Nov. 10-11 at least, the two tech hubs were one, though. The catalyst? The Under 20 Summit held in the 92YTribeca cultural and community center in Lower Manhattan.
Part conference and part networking event, the event attracted guests from both coasts and from four continents. It was organized by the Thiel Foundation, the brainchild of PayPal co-founder, libertarian and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel — the same non-profit that made waves last year when it launched the controversial Thiel Fellowship, which provides roughly 20 two-year stipends of $100,000 each year to students under the age of 20. (Full disclosure: This journalist was a 2012 finalist for the Thiel Fellowship.)
“The Under 20 Summits were created to enable young entrepreneurs and visionaries to learn from, collaborate and inspire each other,” said Danielle Strachman, program director of the Thiel Fellowship. “The Summit community is our way of giving back to our applicants and inspiring further innovation — no matter what happens during the application period.”
“The Summit acts as a force multiplier for young entrepreneurs who have been working alone on hard problems for far too long. Energy picks up. Friendships are born. And the community rallies to support everyone’s endeavors,” added Michael Gibson, vice president for grants at the foundation. “It’s Moneyball for science and technology.”
The Summit began with consecutive keynote speeches by Brian Wong, founder of the mobile advertising platform Kiip.me, best-selling author Julien Smith, entrepreneur Paul DeJoe and Thiel Fellow and solar energy wunderkind Eden Full. The four shared their experiences with colorful anecdotes aplenty, encouraging the audience to cold call prospective mentors, to learn from the wisdom of the ancients and to avoid wasting time on the Internet.
Thus energized, the crowd clad in plaid shirts, colorful pants and black-rimmed glasses — the wardrobe of today’s tech hipsters — dispersed for an afternoon of interactive breakout sessions. Facilitators, including Thiel Fellows, mentors from the Thiel Fellowship community and Thiel Foundation representatives conducted sessions as varied as “Growing into a Prime Mover” and “Recruiting in an Undefined Sector.”
Dinner was held at the New York University School of Law and sponsored by the University’s Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy. It was accompanied by an inspirational talk by Josh Whiton, founder and CEO of TransLoc, which markets bus-tracking technology to schools including NYU.
The second day of the Summit left attendees free to lead “Unconference” sections about topics of their choosing. As with the day before, casual advising sessions termed “office hours” with members of the Thiel community were offered. Topics included employee motivation, non-profit administration and outreach to developing nations.
Throughout the Summit, mentors mirrored the enthusiasm of the attendees.
“Mentoring and ‘paying it forward’ is an inherent part of Silicon Valley,” Strachman said. “People are constantly looking at how to give each other a hand and bring the best technological improvements ahead.”
This sentiment is echoed by mentor Elizabeth Stark, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Stanford University’s StartX start-up incubator who has taught at Stanford and Yale.
“There [are] a lot of things I wish I had known, so [mentoring] is an opportunity to share those lessons,” she said.
Stark is also enthusiastic about the Thiel Fellowship. “When I first heard about the Fellowship, I thought, ‘I wish that had been around when I was under 20! I see a lot of myself in the spirit of the fellowship, in particular the focus on technological innovation, rethinking existing structures and world-changing ideas. It’s radical, and sometimes you need radical approaches to change the status quo.”
Indeed, if there were two prevailing themes at the Summit, they were the quest for meaning and the desire to change the world for the better through technology. The tech community reckons itself a positive force, despite the incremental, seemingly trivial amount of progress being made today.
“The world, not just colleges, needs to wake up and see the extraordinary talent the young can bring to bear on our society’s most pressing problems. It’s time we stop passing them by,” Gibson said.
The next Under 20 Summit will be held in San Francisco this June. More information is available here.
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