Insights October 2010

Stopping out of School and Work: Innovation leave

Neil Seeman

One disruptive innovation idea and a new set of data surfaced recently. The idea comes courtesy of Peter Thiel, one of the most influential people in Silicon Valley. Thiel has launched a new initiative to pay promising young people $100,000 grants to “stop out” of high-school and start their own companies. Wow. The new data set comes from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics: contrary to popular myth, Gen X and Yers have just as much job loyalty as job-switching baby boomers. When they were 18 to 44, the Late Boomers, it turns out, had an average of 11 employers, or a job change every 2.4 years.

Mr. Thiel will offer grants of up to $100,000 for kids to drop out of school. In an offhand remark during an earnest description of the initiative in a Techcrunch interview, the contrarian Mr. Thiel – co-Founder of Paypal and seed investor in Facebook – called it “stopping out of school.”

Thiel will fund up to 20 kids under the age of 20 who apply for this grant. Like superhero Professor X, Thiel wants to find young minds who are tackling big problems early in life. He says his “stop-out-of-school” grants will also soften the blow of post-collegiate debt loads. Thiel will be accepting applications for this grant through the end of the year for enrollment in 2011.
Isn’t stopping out of school a threatening concept for parents and educators? It shouldn’t be.

Thiel – a Chess Master and among the world’s most successful Internet entrepreneurs – responds: “I do think there are a lot of things people learn in school. I don't think they learned anything much about entrepreneurship.”

It is easy to accuse the brilliant Mr. Thiel of hypocrisy. He has two University degrees (both from Stanford). Thiel’s Confinity Inc., which spawned PayPal, would not have been possible without the University-based engineers recruited by Confinity co-founder Max Levchin.

A more generous interpretation of Thiel’s “stopping out of school” program is that college is increasingly expensive, and traps students into job-hopping careers that eschew entrepreneurship. What’s wrong with encouraging promising young students a chance to chase their dreams in robotics or Web analytics and build a great company? Even if they crash and burn, well, they crash and burn. Entrepreneurship is too important for society for it to be reserved just for University graduates.

All of which brings me to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The idea that Boomers show more loyalty to organizations than do younger generations is a media fabrication. This myth has stultified innovation in North America for three decades. In industries where we are desperate for innovation, notably healthcare, how often do we hear people tell would-be entrepreneurs: “Creating a company doesn’t sound so secure. Go to law school instead.”

Thiel’s disruptive idea should go further. It should expand to the workplace, which isn’t as secure as the Boomers thought it was. Why don’t organizations give employees an “innovation leave”? One year – with guaranteed hire-back – provided they win a Thiel-style, competitive ‘stop-out-of-work’ grant and try to start their own company. Ironically, an “innovation leave” might make people want to come back to a company that takes innovation seriously.

Let’s do more to fund people trapped in job-hopping career trajectories so that they can take a risk they never could before. Entrepreneurship is too important for society for it to be reserved for any generation.

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College.


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