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Raising A Visionary: Christopher Olah

Editor’s Note: Silicon Valley visionary Peter Thiel was one of the first investors in Facebook and has backed many of today’s hottest tech companies. Today, Thiel offers budding entrepreneurs the chance to win a $100,000 fellowship, if only they drop out of college. Chris Olah, 19, is among the 2012 class of Thiel Fellows. He is using 3D printing to help people improve their quality of life. His mother, Frances Zomer, reflects on his upbringing — including how he overcame bullies.

Frances Zomer, mother of Thiel Fellow Chris Olah.
Frances Zomer, mother of Thiel Fellow Chris Olah.

Every new parent reads parenting books. Every new parent talks to other parents. But Christopher was not like the books and he was not like the other parents’ kids. He did not play with toys, and yet he knew how every single household appliance worked.

At age 4, he became a vegetarian because he thought about what you would have to do to an animal to eat it.

At that time, he walked up to some men who were fishing and politely asked them how they thought the fish felt about their trade.

At that time, he asked me where the rolls of grass for sodding came from and proceeded to share his theory. In his words: “For you to understand, picture your cookie sheets, only deeper and longer. They are in a greenhouse. They put soil in the trays and then grow the grass and roll them up.”

I will never forget those words. Here he was, just sitting in a child’s car seat!

He considered sports to be a waste of time. He could not understand why anyone would chase a ball around a field. He preferred to spend his time thinking, and at one time, allowed his thoughts to be consumed by the concept of black holes.

Most of what he worked on I could not understand, but what I did know was that he had a beautiful mind. A beautiful mind in a young body is not always easy. It was tough to fit in.

When other boys wanted to be "boys," Christopher wanted to have intellectual discussions. Bullying was a huge problem. His sixth-grade teacher and principal told me that Christopher was the cause of his own bullying and he really needed to just fit in (because his vocabulary and comprehension skills were so high that people would forget he was a child). The principal also told me that I should take him out of the public school system. She added that he would never go to college and would be lucky if he ever finished high school.

Regardless of what the educators tell you, you have to believe in your child. A 4-year-old could not come up with the ideas Christopher did and not be destined to do great things. In my mind, a mother’s role is to be the biggest cheerleader her child can have. If a mother does not believe in her own child, who will?

High school was amazing and he grew! By the end of ninth grade, he had already read all the 12th-grade science textbooks. By 10th grade, he was in the University of Toronto's Mentorship Program, which led to their hiring him to write ecological modeling software in the summer. He spent his spare time auditing courses at the university. He started spending time at Hacklab, a place where he could meet other people who had the same passion for technology.

I have always considered myself privileged to have raised my children. They are both kind and have gifts that are unique to them.

I will continue to be Christopher’s greatest fan. He has never followed the “normal” path and now is no different. I watched Christopher go through some really difficult years and am so happy for him. He is doing what he loves and is surrounding himself with interesting and like-minded people.

—Frances Zomer is mother of Chris Olah, a 2012 Thiel Fellow

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