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Maybe those darn kids really are our future...
Kids! They play those damn video games, thumb their social media... What are you gonna do with these youth of today?
OK, here’s a thought: Pay 20 of them $100,000 each over two years to implement bold ideas to make the world a better place—but only if they’re under 20 and agree to do this instead of going to college. That’s what Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal, started doing in 2011 through his Thiel Foundation.
If your mind is only halfway blown by that thought, finish the job with this one: wanting to continue the relationships formed among the Fellows during the highly competitive selection process, the Thiel Foundation started hosting summits twice a year and created a loose affiliation of Fellows, finalists, semifinalists and others around the country. Now including about 1,200 people in 40 countries, the Thiel Network has more participants in Chattanooga than anywhere outside New York City and San Francisco, including two young Chattanooga women who made it to the finals in the last two years.
Chattanooga’s involvement with all things Thiel—Foundation, Fellowships, Network and maybe a future Summit—began a couple years ago when Nick Arnett, Thiel’s Summit Community Development Manager, met Tiffany Robinson, now with Lamp Post Group’s WayPaver talent development initiative. The two bonded over their mutual interest in entrepreneurial ecosystems. At Arnett’s invitation, Robinson and two other people with Lamp Post startups attended a Thiel Summit last year and were accepted into the Thiel Network.
The conversation continued when Arnett brought a Thiel group to Chattanooga for a round of startup tours, conversations about entrepreneurship and some sampling of Chattanooga’s quality of life, including paddleboarding on the Tennessee River.
“The 20 people who joined us on that fell in love with this place,” says Arnett. “We had some that were looking for places to build their next startup and places to hire people or set up an office that suddenly...were seriously considering either moving to Chattanooga or having some sort of standing involvement because they loved it so much.”
After that visit, Thiel began encouraging regional meetups of Thiel Network members and Lamp Post Group began hosting monthly or bimonthly sessions in Chattanooga in February 2014 in which about 40 people—most under 25—listen to speakers, tour startups and find like-minded peers.
“It’s really exciting to me to see the types of people they have showing up and asking questions,” says Arnett. “You’ve got a good mix of people who’ve maybe already tried to start their own business, who’ve already entered the startup world and are thirsty for more information, learning more and connecting with like-minded people.”
Arnett is one of those nontraditional young people. Now 21, he started his first nonprofit at age 12.
By age 10 or 11, he was fascinated with downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he lived. When he participated in a downtown design charrette, he was frustrated at being the only child in attendance.
“I remember saying on the car ride home with my mom, ‘Yeah, but I shouldn’t be the only young person in the room because this is the city my generation is going to inherit some day,’” he says.
He started a nonprofit that hosted urban design charrettes for elementary- and middle-school students. Then, at age 14, he got a job with the downtown improvement district. By age 18, he was heading up communications for them and he had realized he was more interested in connecting resources and people than the details of design. He left and went to work for a regional economic development group in northeast Indiana. On the side, he started another nonprofit called the 12 Cities Project that traveled across the country studying how cities—including Chattanooga—catalyzed their entrepreneurial ecosystems.
He applied for a Thiel Fellowship, didn’t recieve it, but stayed in touch with the Thiel staff, and in 2012 was hired to take the lead in building the Thiel Network community around the country.
This fall he’s moving to Chattanooga, working remotely for the San Francisco-based Thiel Foundation. Why actually move to Chattanooga?
“It’s not because of the riverfront, it’s not because of the amenities downtown and access to the mountains, although I love all of that and it’s awesome,” he says. “It’s because of the people here. I love the community that you see developing here organically, groups of people who are really dedicated to thinking boldly and thinking big. I find more like-minded people here than I found in the past 21 years I’ve spent in Indiana. That’s the reason I’m moving here. It makes me feel at home, weirdly enough, even though I’ve never lived here in my life.”