March 21, 2013
Ever heard of the Thiel Fellowship 20 Under 20? Neither had I until I settled in my seat on board the United Airlines flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles and watched the 90 minute documentary “20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow”. The Thiel Fellowship is the brainchild of billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel who thinks students with big ideas need to have the freedom to pursue them. He does not believe that education is needed to innovate. Instead, he believes that innovative ideas need to be acted upon right now and not be put off into the future after a college degree has been earned. Thiel’s mission is to offer students a chance to trade school for Silicon Valley. The Thiel Fellowship “encourages lifelong learning and independent thought” to 20 candidates under the age of 20 by offering them each $100,000 and two years free to pursue their dreams. The decision these young people have to make is drop of out of some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. or Canada for two years to pursue their vision. This is a big risk they are to take, as there’s no guarantee that their idea is going to take off. But we need some people to take risks on some big ideas if we want innovation to happen.
Having just spent two weeks in Hong Kong and Tokyo, this idea of dropping out of college and stepping into an entrepreneurial venture is the antithesis of what students from the Asia-Pacific region are raised and educated to follow. While the young high school graduates from for example China, Hong Kong, Japan, S. Korea are preparing themselves for admission to the top 10 universities in the U.S., their counterparts, at least those aspiring to qualify for the Thiel Fellowship are making the giant leap of dropping out of the very colleges these students are coveting and stepping into the entrepreneur’s abyss. A Chinese, Japanese, or Korean student returning back to his/her home with a degree from one of the top 10 U.S. universities expects to find a better job with higher pay and enjoy the prestige that comes with having a degree from a brand name institution.
This idea of fostering innovation is what we’ve been conditioned to believe is the very function of our institutions of higher education alongside acquiring a rounded liberal arts education. But does innovation truly need a degree to be realized? Certainly that was not the case for innovators like Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (FaceBook) who dropped out of college to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. For a list of other successful college-drop-out entrepreneurs click on this link: http://www.youngentrepreneur.com/blog/100-top-entrepreneurs-who-succeeded-without-a-college-degree/
In Tokyo, as was the case in Hong Kong, students in elite schools are preparing themselves for university at an early age by round the clock tutoring, test prepping, cram schools, and foregoing holidays and summer vacations with more of the same. A Hong Kong colleague with two small children under the age of five complained about the pressures put upon parents to begin preparing portfolios of their children’s accomplishments when they’re as young as two!
One thing I learned while in Japan is that with the decline in birthrates and the slowing of their economy, Japanese students and their families are no longer looking at U.S. institutions to pursue higher education. Those who can afford to are looking at the top 10. Just like Hong Kong, the Japanese want to send their children to Harvard, Yale, MIT or Stanford. Otherwise, they are perfectly content with staying in Japan and enjoying a comfortable standard of living.
Having briefly browsed through markets and grocery stores in Tokyo, I was humbled by the overwhelming abundance and varieties of produce, vegetables and fruits. They certainly made our WholeFoods markets look like second-rate grocery stores. Of course, the impeccable displays and packaging at the Japanese markets can make the most humble looking orange or broccoli look like a gift from the heavens. Mind you all this beauty and presentation comes with a high price, which can also be said for Whole Foods, though nothing comes even close to the űber attentive service and staging offered at the Japanese stores.
The lack of litter on the streets and sidewalks in Tokyo or in its subways was also a remarkable sight to experience, as was the fact that no one locks their bicycles left on racks alongside buildings. As a non-Japanese speaker, I was heartened to see subway signs, automated ticket machines, restaurant menus in both Japanese and English. Contrary to what I had heard from those who had visited Japan a decade or so ago, more Japanese seem to have a basic understanding of English and those I’d randomly approached on streets for direction were more than happy to help in English. In fact, on a subway ride to Asakusa, to visit the famous Senso-ji (Buddhist Temple) and market, my colleague, Zepur Solakian with CGACC (Center for Global Advancement of Community Colleges) and I had a lovely chat with a Japanese family and their two children, a boy of about eight and a girl of twelve who spoke English. When we asked them where they learned their English, the young girl told us they both started in the kindergarten at the Little Angel Academy & Kindergarten in Tokyo. (An interesting side note on this school’s teaching methodology is that it offers early education based on the Indian curriculum. “The school teaches Indian Mathematics in English and uses English drills to teach English. However, it combines both Japanese and Indian methods of education at the preschool stage.”)
We also learned from an American colleague in Tokyo, that some Japanese are turning in their Green Cards at the U.S. Embassy seeing no future need of holding onto their residency permits in the U.S. They are perfectly happy living and working in Japan. If anything, it is the international students living in Japan—the children of ex-pats or of Japanese-American parents—who are interested in studying in the U.S.
Earlier, while I was in Hong Kong attending the APAIE (Asia-Pacific Association of International Education) conference, where Zepur and I were presenters on a panel discussing partnerships and collaboration between U.S. community colleges and higher education communities in the Asia-Pacific, I was overwhelmed by the aggressive growth of higher education institutions in the region and their desire to become more global in their reach. I was a little crestfallen, thinking that the U.S. had lost its competitive edge and that the Asia-Pacific region had had us beat and ahead. Apparently I’m not alone in this observation, when I asked Zepur on her thoughts, here’s what she had to say: “In the past 18 years I have seen East Asia region transform and grow and embrace globalization; the enormity and magnitude of which can only be understood when witnessed… the written word or videos can only attempt to describe/convey what is really going on.”
But I shall remain optimistic. If the “20 Under 20” student-entrepreneurs I saw in the documentary on the Thiel Fellowship is any indication, innovation and thinking outside of the box—the hallmark of American ingenuity—is alive and well.
I’m not convinced that a college education is worthless or has little or no merit. But I also see the importance and value of creating an environment free of the traditional academic rigor and structure, like the two-year time-frame of the Thiel Fellowship to support innovation. According to Peter Thiel “the greatest challenge of the 21st century for US is to find a way to go back to the future and to go back to the time when people believed in progress and in the ability of technology to transform our society radically for the better.” Fresh new ideas need to be fostered and nurtured immediately rather than postponed. A combination of a life-long learning and independent thought with academic instruction may be just what the U.S. needs to stay competitive and relevant in today’s global market in education and business.
Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI