Thiel Fellows Teach us 4 Elements of an Entrepreneurial Mindset

Gayle Allen
We can accomplish very little without some combination of persistence, determination, and hard work, all of which are key elements of an achievement mindset. So when we probe what constitutes an entrepreneurial mindset – one where achievement is assumed – we know these same attributes play an important role. And yet these skills fall far short of what entrepreneurs need to succeed.
While an achievement mindset can drive ordinary outcomes, it takes a different kind of mindset to innovate or create something new. That distinction is what sets entrepreneurs apart, and it’s what led me to interview four young people – Charlie, Jihad, Madison, and Alex — each of whom is an entrepreneur between the ages of 18 and 24 and a current or past Thiel Fellow.
While their passions and pursuits may be different, their entrepreneurial mindsets are not. In fact, their mindsets are similar in four key ways that we can encourage and support in today’s young people:

1. Intentional Curiosity

They don’t wait for someone to inspire their curiosity or approve their entrepreneurial choices. For example, 2012 Thiel Fellow Charlie Stigler began coding apps while in high school in Los Angeles. At 16, he developed an open-source app, SelfControl, to help a local artist avoid distracting websites.

Today that app is used by millions of people around the world. Two years later, Charlie founded Zaption, a video platform for teachers and students. Charlie’s intentional curiosity is the key reason he left college for a Thiel Fellowship. He explains: “one of the biggest things that I think is really important to who I’ve become is the ability to pick what I want to do rather than be told what I want to do.” In fact, he argues that “we delay until really late the process of finding out what’s important to [us] . . . and I don’t think that delaying it [until college] is a good idea.”

2. A Bias toward Action

Jihad Kawas is a 2015 Thiel Fellow from Lebanon and, at 18, the founder of Saily, an online platform that connects second-hand buyers and sellers. At 13, he built websites for small businesses. At 14, he started a web design agency, printed himself a set of business cards, and pitched his family and school to attend the Apple World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco. While Jihad’s family said “yes, his school said no.” Undeterred, he went to the conference. Though Jihad graduated from high school, he admits that the thought of more schooling – of asking for permission to build and innovate – was too stifling. Instead, he shares: “I got out of school and decided I’m not doing the boundaries thing . . . I’m going to get out of that system.” His bias toward action led him back to San Francisco, where the support of his Thiel Fellowship has allowed him to connect with experienced entrepreneurs.

3. Self-directed Learner

Necessity requires that all four direct their own learning —  they can’t afford to wait until what they need to learn is added to a syllabus or offered as a course. For Madison Maxey, a 2013 Thiel Fellow and wearable technology entrepreneur, her work is so cutting edge that there wouldn’t be a course for her to take. Madison has been innovating from the time she was in high school designing costumes with alternative materials: “I was…into figuring out these ways of making clothing that were interesting but also [efficient].” Strapped for cash when she founded her company, The Crated, she taught herself how to code. To deepen her programming skills, she took classes at General Assembly:

“I did work study to help pay for the classes and learned programming, but also learned a ton about entrepreneurship because, at this point, General Assembly had a co-working space. So I got this amazing chance to learn from people who were starting companies and just kind of soaked up as much knowledge as I possibly could.”

Today Madison is developing hardware and software to support scalable solutions for fashion tech innovators. She explains, “I really want to bring digital fabrications to the textile circuitry space . . . I don’t know a lot of people working on that problem.” So she’s been “developing some of these tools and learning more about workflows and practices, so I can use them in my practice but also so that, ideally, other people can use them.” Daily she lives with the uncertainty of tackling problems no one else has solved.

4. Creative Confidence

All four have the creative confidence to believe they can solve difficult problems. This confidence allows them to live with the fear, the uncertainty, and the pressure that comes with solving big problems on tight timelines and with scant resources. Alex Koren, a 2014 Thiel Fellow from New Jersey, revealed his creative confidence in high school, when he decided to start a juggling club. Responsible for drumming up peer interest to form a legitimate club, Alex knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he learned:

“If you’re really passionate about something . . . no matter what other people think, no matter how it might be perceived . . . go seek those people and if you can’t find them, then turn people’s perspectives — create the people who have that passion.”

That same kind of confidence led him to coordinate a hackathon during a college internship at Intel. Out of that hackathon, he started two companies, Hyv and Chrg, which led him to speak at Facebook and, soon after, to leave college for a Thiel Fellowship. Since coming to San Francisco, he’s spent time mentoring other entrepreneurs and researching his next company. Every day he asks himself, “If tomorrow is like today, will I be happy?” And every day he has the creative confidence to ensure that’s the case.

Each of these four young people is hard working, determined, and persistent and, though young, they’ve already achieved a number of personal and professional goals. But what sets them apart is an entrepreneurial mindset, a desire to innovate and create. They have the intentional curiosity, the bias toward action, the commitment to direct their own learning, and the creative confidence to pursue passions that lead to products, companies, experiences, and networks that they get to choose.
About “GenDIY”
eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY)– how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love – on The Huffington Post This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial. For more on GenDIY:

Gayle Allen is Chief Learning Officer at BrightBytes. Follow Gayle on Twitter, @GAllenTC.

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