- REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The political tension in America’s tech capital is palpable.
Silicon Valley prides itself on being the home for the contrarians, the disruptors, the people who want to see the world be different. Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal and outspoken libertarian, embodies the cherished Silicon Valley ethos more than anyone else.
Yet somehow, Thiel’s support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the ultimate political outsider, has made Thiel a pariah and an open target for public condemnation in his hometown.
On Monday, Thiel gave a speech at the National Press Club to justify why he’s voting for Trump, whose vows to curb immigration and to tear up free trade deals have made him deeply unpopular in the tech industry.
But even as many groups have lambasted Thiel and threatened to sever ties with him, one group of techies is largely standing by Thiel: the recipients of the Thiel fellowship, a program that gives budding entrepreneurs a $100,000 check if they drop out of school and pursue their startup dreams.
Diwank Singh Tomer, a 2013 fellowship recipient, said he’s been fielding a lot of questions from friends in the Bay Area about his ties to Thiel, although not as much as from people back home in India.
“Being an immigrant, I do not agree with the opinions and beliefs of Donald Trump. And for the same reason, I disfavor Peter Thiel’s support for him,” Tomer told Business Insider in an email. “However, this does not change my opinion regarding the Thiel fellowship in any manner. The fellowship has provided brilliant opportunities to people like me.”
Business Insider sent over 95 emails to the Thiel fellows we could find contact information for. Of those, only a handful responded, and many declined to comment given the possible repercussions. The Thiel Foundation also declined to comment.
Last year, more than 6,000 people applied for 26 fellowship slots. In the last five years, the Thiel fellowship has been awarded to over 120 people, all ages 22 and below.
Mountains of student debt
It’s not yet clear if Thiel’s support for Trump will increase or decrease the number of applications for this year’s batch of fellowship slots. But for the aspiring tech moguls who have already bought into Thiel’s business vision, the 49-year-old’s political views are not a deal breaker.
Despite having multiple degrees, Thiel launched the fellowship in 2011 to offer an alternate path than the traditional education system. The $100,000 grants let fellows drop out or pause their education for two years to pursue their ideas. Some, like James Proud, have already sold a company and started another. Others have created a startup or two before returning to school to finish their degrees.
The rising mountains of student debt is one reason Thiel started the fellowship program – and it’s one of the marquee reasons he supports Trump. During his speech on Monday, Thiel said he’s voting for Trump partly because millennials are “stuck” in a “broken system.”
“Our youngest citizens may not have huge medical bills, but their college tuition keeps on increasing faster than the rate of inflation, adding more every year to our $1.3 trillion-dollar mountain of student debt,” Thiel said. “America has become the only country where students take on loans they can never escape, not even by declaring bankruptcy. Stuck in this broken system, millennials are the first generation who expect their own lives to be worse than the lives of their parents.”
Living in the echo chamber
It’s a message that has stuck a chord with a lot of millennials.
William LeGate, a 2013 Thiel fellow, found that only some of his friends on the West Coast really questioned Thiel’s ties to Trump. In his hometown of Atlanta, no one has asked his opinion of it, he said. Instead, some friends have asked about one of his investors’ support of Hillary Clinton.
“It’s easy to live in Silicon Valley’s echo chamber and vilify Trump supporters just as it’s easy to live in red states and disparage liberals,” LeGate told Business Insider.
It’s easy to live in Silicon Valley’s echo chamber and vilify Trump supporters just as it’s easy to live in red states and disparage liberals.
“Peter has always been a contrarian, vocal about his views no matter how popular or unpopular they may be. Who he supports politically doesn’t change the fact that there’s currently over $1 trillion in student loan debt in the US and growing at a rate of nearly $3,000 per second, nor does it discredit the significant resources he donates to philanthropic causes, of which, the Thiel fellowship is only one,” LeGate said in an email.
“I personally don’t agree with all his views, but I believe it’s disparaging to half the country to suggest that supporting a major-party candidate in the US could in some way tarnish the prestige of the fellowship or Peter’s other philanthropic work.”
His philanthropy, though, may be shielded from Silicon Valley’s spears of disgust. While some venture capitalists have already sworn off working with Thiel or Y Combinator, at which he is an adviser, Tomer said he would have applied for the fellowship even knowing of Thiel’s support of Trump today.
“Again, Peter Thiel’s support and funding of the Gawker lawsuit would have kept my application to the fellowship undeterred,” Tomer said. “There are many people working behind the fellowship program, and it will be absurd of me to discredit their efforts and hard work because of the actions of Peter Thiel.”