The goal is to bring teens into Chattanooga’s startup community...and keep them.
My last column profiled Nick Arnett, who was so taken with Chattanooga that he decided to move here and do his job remotely supporting the San Francisco-based Thiel Fellowship program, which provides grant funding for 20 innovators under age 20.
Arnett is 22 and has created two nonprofits to accomplish things he thought needed doing. He applied for the Thiel Fellowship—unsuccessfully—but parlayed the connections he made in the process into a job growing Thiel’s international network of young innovators.
Now meet the next generation that comes after him.
Mae Stuart is 18, graduated high school last spring and is headed to UTC this fall. Conventional wisdom would situate her no closer to economic productivity than saying, “Fries with that?”
Enter the Thiel Network.
After hearing a presentation last year from Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences grad Rachel Phillips, who was a Thiel finalist last year, Stuart volunteered to help build the Thiel community here. Now she works as a paid intern in Lamp Post Group’s WayPaver talent innovation lab, working to engage under-20s in Chattanooga’s startup community and its growing Thiel community.
Because the two-year Thiel Fellowships require recipients to develop a project instead of going to college, Stuart has fielded questions about why she’s about to start college while promoting a program that seems anti-college.
“If it’s going to cost you a lot of debt and if it’s going to put on hold what you’re trying to do, maybe school isn’t the best thing for you right now,” says Stuart. “It’s all about doing what fits and what you need. Really what the Thiel Foundation promotes is doing what’s best for you.”
A lot of Thiel Fellows enter or resume college after the Fellowship, she adds.
The idea that someone under 20 might be postponing serious work to go to college seems almost more revolutionary than giving Fellowship recipients $100,000 a year for two years to implement their ideas. Projects developed by 2014 Thiel Fellows have included an intelligent bionic glove for partial hand amputees, non-invasive alternatives to online advertising, tools to make starting new companies easier and software to help journalists uncover human rights abuses more easily.
In addition to some social media work and internal community building within Lamp Post, Stuart’s job is to organize a series of meetups for under-20s that bring them into contact with the kind of resources that founders of startup companies need to get started. One goal is to encourage people to apply for the Thiel Fellowship—an “app-a-thon” workshop is planned to help people work on their applications when the process begins—but Stuart and WayPaver are after bigger things.
“Right now the goal of the meetup community, and also of the entire organization, is to build the support system for kids who feel like they need to be doing something,” she says. “It’s really to look at everyone and say, ‘Hey, you can do something.’”
Under-20s don’t need to have a big idea to be welcomed into the Thiel community. WayPaver also wants to help them develop big ideas by exposing them to mentors and peer networks that think big.
“We want to be kind of that training ground,” Stuart says. “In the same way the Thiel Foundation promotes picking whatever path is right for you—college, not college—it also promotes doing things now, not waiting until someone decides that you’re qualified, understanding that there is no moment at which you suddenly become qualified to do something great. You ARE qualified.”
Stuart sees the growing Chattanooga Thiel Community as a way to connect people under 20 with Chattanooga’s startup culture, both for-profit and nonprofit.
“I see it becoming a launch pad and hopefully a well-established support system, where kids know that they can come her to develop ideas and they can come here to develop themselves and find mentors,” says Stuart.
The next Thiel Summit will be held in Chattanooga next spring, bringing Thiel Community members from around the nation to learn from each other and from Chattanooga. Future plans may include bringing speakers to Chattanooga from the larger Thiel community, and smaller grants to high schoolers to implement business plans
“Our goal isn’t just ‘you come here to know Thiel’,” adds Stuart. “Our goal is ‘you come to Thiel to then know Lamp Post Group and Co.Lab and all these things that are happening in Chattanooga and around the world’. Thiel is well integrated into those networks, and the goal is always to push kids into places that will make them thrive.”
To find out more about the Chattanooga Thiel Network, visit chathiel.org. For a series of short videos about the most recent Thiel Fellowship competition, search “Teen Technorati” on YouTube.