The Thiel Fellowship and the Entrepreneurial Spirit: A Gendered Look

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Over the past few years and with increasing frequency, the United States education system has been the recipient of harsh criticism. One of the most pressing concerns is that the education system as it currently stands does not nurture the creative and inventive spirit of our students. Of all the calls for reform, there is a distinct voice in the crowd that says, maybe traditional educational routes like college are not the best paths for everyone. Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay-Pal, is one of those voices.

 In 2011, Thiel launched the Thiel Fellowship, a two-year program that provides a group of twenty young adults – 20 under 20 – with the resources ($100,000) and guidance to drop out of school and pursue unique and powerful dreams. The fellows conduct research, start companies, design inventions – all without a college degree. The Thiel Fellowship epitomizes the glorified dropout, the mentality that views famously successful cases like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs with respect and desired repeatability.

It did not come as a surprise to me that in the 2013 class of Thiel fellows, only four are women. In fact, in the three years since Thiel launched the program, just eight fellows in total are female. This is not to accuse or even criticize the Thiel Fellowship selection process; while application statistics are not made available, it is evidenced by all relevant media and literature that the overwhelming majority of applicants are male. No – the starkly unequal distribution of gender in the fellowship has roots that run far deeper, pointing to overarching themes of the underrepresentation of women in business and research.

We ask ourselves why just a fraction of the largest and most profitable companies have women in the highest positions of power, and with a gendered landscape of entrepreneurship even among our youth, the same question may still be unanswered when this generation grows up and gets promoted. Compartmentally, gender inequalities are still evident, and we recognize them; but fields like business and education and science and medicine are not so mutually exclusive. As we continue to explore the intricate intersections of education and entrepreneurship, it is my hope that a look at gendered opportunities, mindsets, and trends will play a larger role in the movement of reform.

Rachel Weber

Duke University

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