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A Mother’s Take on the Thiel Fellowship

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. In 2011, Dale Stephens was one of 20 individuals to win the first Thiel Fellowship. His mother, Lisa Nalbone, recalls attending the Thiel Fellows Retreat and how the program has changed her son’s life.

Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens pictured with his mother LisaNalbone during a family vacation to Alaska.
Photo: Lisa Nalbone
Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens pictured with his mother LisaNalbone during a family vacation to Alaska.

A year ago, I drove to Marin Headlands to attend the first Thiel Fellows Retreat. Parents were invited, and I jumped at the chance to get an up-close and personal look at the other fellows and the organization offering this controversial fellowship.

I was also looking forward to spending some time with my son, who’d been in Arkansas at college before dropping out. He decided to leave school and started traveling before he knew he had the fellowship. For me as a mom, it was one stressful spring.

Then, I found out Dale would not even be there! He would be in Madrid, speaking about his website, UnCollege. I decided I’d still go since I was very curious and unsure about this whole operation.

I had lots of questions and some trepidation as I drove off. Would they make kids sign away their life? Would it be all about money? What would they be offering in the way of non-financial support? How and when would they see the fellowship money? What were the strings? I was also looking forward to chatting with other parents, even though I really had no idea what to expect.

Well, it wasn’t the parent bonding party I was kind of hoping for, since there was only one other parent. But I did get a whole lot of reassurance, excitement and inspiration. I was so glad I went.

First off, it was gorgeous. Comfortable but not fancy. You could hear the ocean waves as we sat in the conference room. And there were breaks for fresh air, meals and hikes with get-to-know-you activities. Made me, nature lover and former environmental educator, feel much better. Reflection and exercise in a natural setting is always a good thing.

Secondly, Danielle, Jim and the other staff members greeted me warmly, which made me feel welcome, comfortable and appreciated.

Thirdly, there was a packed schedule of what looked like fantastic speakers and workshops. I was impressed with the variety of topics that had nothing to do with my worries and everything to do with supporting these young people in being successful, making good choices, taking care of themselves and finding their purpose and passion.

Okay, so they did care about them as people, and not just as potential investments for funders.

I tried to meet and talk to as many of the fellows as I could. Understandably, they were much more interested in getting to know one another. It was all a bit intimidating.

I loved listening to the various speakers; they all had valuable information to share — even for me, a 50-something-year-old. I was impressed with the range of topics they covered and kept thinking, "I’d wished I’d been given all this information and access at this tender age." Wondering, would the kids be able to appreciate and take it all in?

I was happy to hear messages to the fellows about solving problems in the world, taking care of themselves, living within their means and not going crazy with the money in the world they would be hobnobbing with. I was reassured by both the message and the kind of support the foundation was demonstrating. I could see they were trying to help these amazing young people form a community to support one another, as well as pursue their ambitious projects.

I was really sorry that Dale wasn’t there. Telling him about how great the retreat was would not hold a candle to actually being there.

The energy of the group really gelled that evening when Michael Ellsberg did his workshop on networking and finding mentors. He got the fellows to actively practice the steps he was teaching. It was fantastic. The moment that they really experienced how they could already help each other connect to achieve their goals was electric.

The fellows were repeatedly encouraged to really get to know one another and work together — to take full advantage of the incredible people and mentors they had access to. They were not your average dorm group, not by a long shot.

I was feeling relieved, excited and a bit intimidated by this new world my son was entering. Helping your child be independent and have the confidence to go out into the world to make a difference is what we want them to do. But kind of scary when they actually do it. Driving away, I was less anxious than when I’d arrived, more energized.

My mind was racing again, and I thought to myself, hmm, how about a "50-over-50" program?

—Lisa Nalbone is mother of Dale Stephens, a 2011 Thiel Fellow

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