David speaks with Danielle Strachman, the co-founder and General Partner of 1517 Fund. They primarily invest in dropouts, renegade students, and deep tech scientists.
Danielle is an experienced venture capitalist with a unique approach to sourcing and investing in talent. She shares insights into her process of finding exceptional individuals (like Vitalik Buterin, Dylan Field, etc.) and building communities around them.
You'll hear what she's learned from building a charter school, working with Peter Thiel to develop the Thiel Fellowship, and helping 16-year-olds turn $1000 into millions.
They talked about:
🔎 Unearthing extraordinary talent
🌱 Using venture capital as an education vehicle
🤝 Building a curious community
🚀 The ingredients for world-class founders
🎓 Traditional vs alternative education
🧠 How to cultivate curiosity and take action
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📹 Watch on Youtube
👤 Connect with Danielle:
📄 Show notes:
00:00 | Intro
3:18 | Founding a charter school
12:11 | What different education pathways have in common
16:26 | Deschooling and decompression in homeschooling
20:21 | Structured learning vs letting kids pursue curiosity
26:18 | The pressure for children to follow a normative learning curve
31:11 | Differentiating between precociousness and premature expectations
40:33 Hyperfluency as a characteristic sought by 1517 Ventures
45:57 | What 1517 Ventures look for in founders
51:02 | From charter school founder to Thiel Fellows team member
57:59 | The influence of incentives on decision-making
1:02:13 | How to find exceptional talent
1:11:40 | Impact of early exposure to entrepreneurship
🗣 Mentioned in the show:
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beth_Israel_Deaconess_Medical_Center
Craigslist | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craigslist
Innovations Academy | https://innovationsacademy.org/
Thiel Foundation | https://www.thielfoundation.org/
De-schooling and Decompression | https://home-ed.vic.edu.au/deschooling-and-decompression/
Thiel Fellowship | https://thielfellowship.org/
David Epstein | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Epstein_(journalist)
Range | https://amzn.to/44AwoOs
Tiger Woods | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_Woods
Roger Federer | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Federer
Peak | https://amzn.to/3PN5gHX
Anders Erickson | https://www.anderserickson.com/
Paper Belt On Fire | https://amzn.to/3PPBBO8
Michael Gibson | https://www.encounterbooks.com/authors/michael-gibson/
Acorn to Oak | https://www.acornoak.school/
Sarah Lacy | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Lacy
Vitalik Buterin | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitalik_Buterin
Ethereum | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethereum
👨🏾💻 About David Elikwu:
David Elikwu FRSA is a serial entrepreneur, strategist, and writer. David is the founder of The Knowledge, a platform helping people think deeper and work smarter.
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📖 EBook: https://delikwu.gumroad.com/l/manual
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Career Hyperdrive is a live, cohort-based course that helps people find their competitive advantage, gain clarity around their goals and build a future-proof set of mental frameworks so they can live an extraordinary life doing work they love.
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[00:00:00] Danielle Strachman: if you see something that you think is really awesome, to the point you made earlier of people think they have to found something, reach out, you do not know what's going on under the hood, there might be a whole engine in there and it might be empty and like you may have a lot to add to it. But you have to reach out to the organization or the startup and say Hey, yeah, I'm super passionate about this too. Like, what do you need and how can I help? And you know, not make the assumption I did of, oh, they must have it all figured out and have a staff and all this stuff. So that's what brought me into the Thiel Foundation Orbit.
A lot of career is about who you meet and who you keep in touch with.
[00:00:42] David Elikwu: Hey, I'm David Elikwu. And this is The Knowledge. A podcast for anyone looking to think deeper and work smarter. In every episode I speak with makers, thinkers, and innovators to help you get more out of life.
This week I'm speaking with Danielle Strachman, who is the co-founder and general partner at 1517, which is a venture fund that primarily invests in dropouts, renegade students, and deep tech scientists.
So, even from the headline alone, you know that Danielle is someone that thinks incredibly out of the box in terms of where to find and cultivate talent and you see this throughout her journey.
So we talked about how she founded a charter school not long after leaving college and we talked about the pros and cons of different forms of education from homeschooling and tutoring to charter schools, to traditional education and beyond. And then we talked about how she went on from there to become part of the founding team of the Thiel Fellowship, working closely with Peter Thiel to identify breakout founders before they were on anyone else's radar.
And so we talked about how they found Vitalik Buterin, who is widely considered the founder or co-creator of Ethereum on the college campus of the University of Waterloo, and how they found founders like Dylan Fields and Austin Russell, and the list of Thiel Fellows is packed with incredible all stars, incredible talent.
And so Danielle and I talked about what makes a great founder, what makes a great founding team, how they're able to identify and cultivate that talent and how she's taken everything that she's learned from working with Peter Thiel from building a charter school now into co-founding the 1517 fund, which she thinks of almost as an invisible institution that uses VC as a vehicle to educate extremely young founders.
And so it's really, really interesting work that she's doing. They've already had tremendous success. They were one of the first investors in companies like Loom. And so I really wanted to understand from Danielle, how things change when you start investing in people so young and how you help them to develop as founders and as builders and find their feet in the world.
And so if you are an educator or a founder or an investor, or just have any interest in this space at all, you'll find this to be an incredible conversation.
You can get the full show notes, the transcript, and read my newsletter at theknowledge.io.
Every week, I share some of the best tools, ideas, and frameworks that I come across from business psychology, philosophy and productivity. So if you want the best that I have to share, you can get that in the newsletter at theknowledge.io.
And you can find Danielle on Twitter @DStrachman.
Before we kick off, if you love this episode, please do share it with a friend and don't forget to leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts but particularly on Apple Podcasts because it helps us tremendously to reach other people just like you.
So One of the first questions I was really interested to know I could just dive right in, but I'm really interested to know how you would lay out the early part of your journey. I'm interested to talk about the part where you founded a charter school and then running that but I guess the road there, like how simple was that? I think, I know that you did your degree and you were trying to figure out what to do and teaching seemed to speak to you. But what was that process like of deciding. Cause I think that's still a gap, right? A lot of people maybe come out of university and they're not sure what they wanna do, so they might just go and teach. But deciding I'm gonna start my own school is very different.
[00:03:52] Danielle Strachman: Yeah, absolutely. So I talked to a lot of young people and I mentor a lot of young people and they're like, oh, you know, which direction should I go and what should I choose? And there's so many options today, that I think it's even harder than it was before to figure out like, who do I wanna be? What do I wanna be when I grow up? Something like that and the likelihood that anyone stays on any one career path for even a couple of years. It feels to me like people are like always switching things. And I had some time like that also where I thought I was going down a different career path.
I thought I was going down the career path of neuropsychology actually. Because I had always loved teaching and the idea of being a teacher since I was a little kid, I was the person who would stay inside at recess and help people with their homework. and I liked school and things like that.
But one of the things that was also true was that lots of people were sort of driving me away from that career path. Like I knew a lot of teachers who were my friends' parents, and they would say oh, you shouldn't teach, there's no money in it, the respect is really low, and things like that. And I started going down a pathway of getting interested in neuropsychology. And I was one of the youngest people to intern at the neurology department in the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. And I was getting a lot of kudos for it.
When you say neurology, people are like, whoa, cool neurology. And I would even go to parties as like a 20 year old and people were like, oh, what are you studying? When I was studying education, it was like, this snooze fest, and I swear people would like walk away from me, but when I'd say, oh, I'm studying neurology. Oh, that's interesting. You must be so smart, blah, blah, blah. And I was very driven by that sense of kudos that I was getting from my peers and I had this sort of early quarter life crisis.
I think a lot of people have the quarter life crisis oftentimes, like once they finish school or maybe have started their first career and then go, oh my gosh, what am I doing with myself? I had mine a little bit early. I think I was about, 21, 22. I had just finished school, I thought I was gonna go to grad school, I had applied to grad school, I got into grad school, I was either gonna be a clinical neuropsychologist or a researcher or something like that. And I had this wake up call of, oh my gosh, what am I doing with my life?
As much as I liked the neurology track, I wasn't like eating and breathing neurology. I wasn't super into it. And I decided to take a left turn with my life and, I said no to grad school. I didn't even start. And I thought, well, what were the things that I was really driven about and passionate about when I was a child? And teaching came back to mind and I grew up in a family of people who are predominantly like small business owners and things like that. So I always just learned by osmosis that, you make your own money, you don't have to go work for somebody else. And I decided I would start a tutoring company and I remember thinking like, I'm done with my undergrad, I don't wanna go back to school for another degree. And what's a way I could do this? Well, I could be a private tutor and it was from private tutoring that very randomly I got niched in with homeschoolers and those people changed my life.
I used to Ab test ads on Craigslist before Craigslist was creepy. I'd find different clients and I worked with public school students. I worked with private school students and then a homeschooler hit me up one day and I was so excited because, in part I was excited cause it meant that I could do tutoring during the morning instead of having to wait until the afternoon for children to be outta school. And then when I met these people, they just rocked my world completely. That sense of lifelong learning was really embodied in the whole family. And I would come over and they'd be like, oh, you're here. Can we do reading and science? And can you stay to do this other project? And I was supposed to be there for an hour and I'd end up staying with the family for three hours doing different things with them.
Often talking to the mom at the end for an additional hour about philosophically how did they get into homeschooling and why do they do what they do? I just love these people. And it made me think a lot about choice and education and how things could look different. And at first I thought, oh, it must be this one sort of kooky family that I work with that is just like this. And then I met other homeschoolers and it was like, oh no, this is a culture. There's a whole thing going on here with students who are self-directed and families who are being child led in their approach.
I remember some students that I worked with had sort of specialties, like geek out areas. In a way it kind of translates to what I do now where we look for something called hyper fluency in the people we invest in of like this ability to talk backwards and forwards about a space. And I had so many tutoring students who they had their special geek out area, whether it was history or, I had this one young man who was specializing in lapidary, which is basically like, how do you infuse gemstones into things? And he would go to gem shows and traveling all over the country. And I was like, wow, okay. This is pretty nutty. But I was coming in to do, math and writing and things like that with him.
So yeah, working with those communities really led me to see that there were many different paths of what it looked like to be an educated young person which led into starting the charter school. I was working in a homeschool co-op and we were thinking to ourselves, and we didn't have startup vernacular. We weren't like, how do we scale this? How do we make bigger? Like nobody talked like that. And this was, we started working on the charter in 2006. And so yeah, people weren't enculturated into like startup babble, if you will. But we did have this inkling of, hey, we have this co-op, we're working with homeschool students, and we hear from other parents all the time, who would love to participate especially single moms. And we would think, if there was a bigger way to do this, if there was a way for us to do this inside, like a public school setting and have these values there, that could be really powerful.
And that's what made myself and my co-founder Christine Ugland, start Innovations Academy. It sort of has its own startup story. Like, we would meet in a coffee shop a few times a week. This place that was called Claire Delo. I don't know if it made it through the pandemic or not. This was in San Diego and we'd sit there and talk about ideas and. A charter petition, at the time is this like 400 page research project. Basically you have to write up to say why the school you're going to build is going to work before you build it. Which is a bit funny cause you're always iterating on these different things. And we went through an accelerator program that was called Charter Launch that kind of helped guide us through the process of here's how you get a school started. We had to do customer discovery in terms of talking to parents and learning more. So there's a lot of similarities and also similarities in terms of responsibility.
I remember when we first opened the school, we hired a staff of 14 people and me and my colleague used to pass each other in the hallway, my co-founder and we'd whisper, Who allowed this? Like how did we go from literally just being, I was a tutor, she was a homeschool mom and somebody allowed us to, all of a sudden, be directors of a school. And yes, we had to go through this whole process, but yeah. Okay, 14 staff members are here who are trusting their livelihoods to what we've built. Parents were truly Guinea pigs that first year coming in and saying like, Hey, yeah, I want something different for my children and I'm going to enroll them in this school.
So that first year was particularly mind blowing of wow, I can't believe people are really trusting us. And I know that my startup founders often feel the same way with like, wow, people are trusting us with money, or people are trusting us with their careers and users are trusting us with the product we're building and so on.
So it's interesting to see some of the parallels. But yeah, that homeschooling like philosophy is very deep in me and is very much the thread that's actually throughout my work with the Thiel Foundation also. And with 1517, sometimes we joke and we say we're homeschooling CEOs. In that sort of like CEO led way, instead of it being child led, it's like, hey, no, like, the founders we're working with are gonna guide us as far as what sort of support they need and where they wanna go. And our role is to be a resource to them in that.
[00:11:52] David Elikwu: Okay. Awesome. You said a few really interesting things. One thing I'd love to dig deeper on is, between your experiences going through traditional schooling yourself, the homeschooling and charter schooling, what you notice, and I know you mentioned some, like for example, being self-directed, but I'd love to know what you think are maybe some of the commonalities that you noticed among the students that go through some of these different processes. And in particular, the second follow up question. What do you think comes first between the chicken and the egg in that, it's one thing to maybe identify that, okay, a lot of these homeschooled kids maybe seem to be self-directed as an example, but are they simply self-directed because they are self-selecting, like the group of people that end up doing homeschooling or going to charter schools?
Are they already like that or do they become like that by going through this process?
[00:12:44] Danielle Strachman: Wow. Really, really good questions. It's funny, I have some beliefs that I think some people balk at a little bit. And one of them is like, I think all children have their own genius. It's like they all have their own things that they're really good at and that they really shine in. Some people are like, oh, no, genius is only about IQ scores. And I used to do IQ testing. So I, have a different take with it.
But I've seen a few things. I remember actually towards the beginning of the pandemic, I remember I saw somebody tweet something out about like, my brother is so bored, he's playing guitar all day. And I was like, that's not boredom, that's motivation. And I think sometimes, in the like adult world, we tend to look at what children do and say, oh, they're bored. So they're doing a non-productive thing. It's like, you know, we're starting to talk more in the startup world about toxic productivity. And I think it's actually, I think toxic productivity also is really seen in the child world. Children are heavily overscheduled now, and oh, you have to be doing something that looks like learning or school or something like that. But I think most children have things that they're very motivated by, but in the adult world we judge that as well. That's play time. That's not serious. So I think if we look at most children, you'll start finding, okay, here's the thing that really lights them up.
And when I used to be a private tutor, I would try to figure out what were those things that really lit them up and use those as mechanisms to get through homework or to teach a subject. So I do think that this Curiosity and play are innate human experiences. Yeah, it's hard for me to think of children who don't have those things. I'm sure it comes up in these minimal or outlier cases. I do think of it as innately human different environments than foster or stifle that. And so for some children, they go into environments like, one thing that's interesting is I wouldn't necessarily even abolish typical book learning or like, Hey, turn to this page and do this thing. Cause some children thrive in that and they do really well with that and they want the structure and some children want the sort of, more messy, like, hey, we're gonna get our hands literally dirty or, tactile or they're social learners and they wanna be engaging with people in a group.
But it's about finding the right environment and I think a lot of people think that, oh, or even told, Hey, my child isn't making it in school, which means there's something wrong with my child. To me, it's just it's not a fit. in some work environments as adults, we would say, Hey, I fit really well in a big corporate structure. And I, you know, I don't know. I've never worked at google, so I'm just making it up here. But it's like, I like working at Google, like I know what I'm supposed to do, this is my team, things like that.
And other people are probably gonna want to be in an environment where maybe there's more fluidity between roles and you're wearing different hats every day.
So, I think environment, can amplify or compress things. But I think at the end of the day, the majority of humans have these different drives, and the way that I think about teaching or like the adults and children's lives is our job is to just not layer on stuff that's gonna compress what's already naturally there. It's like, How can we bring it out more? Is more how I think about it, if that answers the question.
[00:16:06] David Elikwu: No, no, no. It does. And I loved the point that you made about the difference between or I guess the balance between motivation and boredom and things that look like boredom because of how much we structure our days, and I think even as you were saying that,
I was just thinking about, oh, go on, sorry.
[00:16:23] Danielle Strachman: I was gonna say there's something that was coming to mind, which is, there's a sort of theory within homeschooling of what's sort of, called deschooling or like decompression time. And we saw this at our charter school too, we would have students who were from like normal school environments and they would come to our school and it would be so different that they were sort of testing the boundaries of oh, okay, at this school, I'm sort of allowed to have feelings about wanting or not wanting to do something. Let's rev that up and see what the adults in this environment do. And I've seen this a lot in homeschooling families too, where maybe they make a shift in the educational environment to something that is more unstructured or more fluid or more, child led.
You know, and some people will talk about these stories of like, oh yeah, took my teen out for middle school and homeschooled then, and the first few months was like video games, video games, video games. And then there was something new that emerged after that. But sometimes we need to allow that de-schooling period. And you hear people in the working world talk about this, sometimes that's called sabbatical. Sometimes that's called taking a staycation or like, you know, you're in between your jobs and okay, like what am I gonna do to decompress now?
And I think it's just as important for children to have that time too. And the reason that was coming up in my mind was that whole boredom thing again. I think boredom can actually like really lead people towards what is motivating for them. And it's just an adult frame to say like, oh, they're doing this thing cause they're bored and it's like, actually they're doing that thing cause they really love it.
[00:17:55] David Elikwu: Yeah. Yeah, and I think boredom. Is super important and it feels like a lost art. I remember there's a study that people quote a lot, which is I think the result was essentially that people would rather give themselves a small electric shock rather than sitting by themselves for 15 minutes.
And so it's just this idea that we have now become so unaccustomed to just sitting alone with our thoughts that anything, even if it's painful, is better than that.
And even as, oh, gone. Yeah.
[00:18:24] Danielle Strachman: Oh, I was gonna say, I heard about that study recently and I remember, I don't remember who I was talking to. I was talking to a group and we all sort of have this quizzical look like, but what if it's novelty? What if it's just like, but how bad does the shock, like all of us on the call were definitely probably the very curious, like A D H D brain types who were like, but what's the shock feel like?
It's not like I, you know, so some of us were hypothesizing that maybe it's that they'd rather sort of shock themselves, then sit with themselves and yeah, people do have a hard time Just being still. But I do have to wonder sometimes, like, well, how much of that is just people seeking novelty, which is also just, a normal thing to want.
[00:19:05] David Elikwu: that is true. But I guess the parallel is that. For a lot of us in our regular lives, I think I'd question how many people actually seek novelty. Like people seek novelty, I guess in like microcosms, so long as they feel safe. But we also love order and structure And safety. And so we like jobs where they, okay, they'll tell us what to do and we can, we can just sit there.
And I think, there's a sense in which we do like the novelty, but in predictable forms in a sense. So like you go on TikTok and you don't know what videos you're gonna see, but you're
[00:19:34] Danielle Strachman: Right? But you still know like within a range.
[00:19:37] David Elikwu: Yeah. exactly. Like if you open your TikTok app and flies could come through your window or something completely random could happen, you'd probably never open it again.
[00:19:46] Danielle Strachman: No. Well, it's funny, I talked to some people who really don't. I have some friends who really do not like surprises, even happy surprises. They're like, I do not want to be surprised. And it's funny for me cause I'm like, what? Like, I love surprises.
So, you know, we all have our individual experiences, but you're right, there's certain range of surprise you want of like, Hey, I know what I'm signing up for and this is it.
And if it's outside the bounds, then yeah, maybe it's too much and it's not what you want.
[00:20:12] David Elikwu: Yeah. To go back a step to one of the previous things that you mentioned, so I will share a personal analogy actually, but I'm interested in, I guess there's two parts of it. One is the extent to which we should be structuring the information that children or people in general need to learn, and I guess the benefit.
And the extent to which children can benefit from being allowed to chase their curiosities. And I have a really good analogy or a good example, which is from my own personal life and to this day, I still haven't decided whether I made good decisions or not. But, uh, okay. Let me just set the frame quickly and just talk a bit more about the.
I guess the,
The structure and constraints, right? I think one thing that is very interesting is you have this idea where people say, oh, this kid is ahead for his age, and so we might put him ahead of class. Or you might say, oh, this person's falling behind, and they're not keeping up with maybe their age mates, but all of this stuff is just made up, right.
And I'm interested maybe as an educator in your perspective on at what point should people be learning certain things, like what should those benchmarks be, and are there any logical points at which it makes sense that we should say, oh, by the time you are eight, you should have a grasp of this much algebra, because if you haven't learned it by then, then maybe one day when you are 11 or 12, you might come across some random trigonometry and you might have some problems or something like that.
So I guess that's like a background question, but I guess the thing that I would share, so when I was, I don't remember. I did the International Baccalaureate, so the IB, I don't know if you've,
[00:21:38] Danielle Strachman: I know a little bit about it. Yeah, IVs are really intense.
[00:21:42] David Elikwu: Yeah. It was not fun. It wasn't fun. So I could have done a Levels, which most people do here, but I did the IB largely because funnily enough, I was very particular, I can't even remember exactly why, I just decided I wanted to study economics and I wanted to study Mandarin, and I was willing to change schools and I would only go to a school that would let me study those two subjects.
And so it was between a school that's in like Holloway Road, both of the schools were not anywhere near my house. But one is in somewhere else in North london and then another school in West London somewhere. So both of them, the commute was like between, the one I ended up going to was like one hour or so, and then the other one would've been like two hours each way. So not fun. So I didn't pick the further one.
But the point was in the second year I was not the best student in general in terms of like studying. I, I had never needed to build a habit of studying to do well in tests up until this point. And so suddenly during the IB you're doing like six subjects. And actually, I think exam start in May, and this was March. And I realized, huh, I probably should seriously start some of the studying stuff. And we were getting to the point where I think in a lot of classes you do electives. And I made the decision, and this is the part I'm. Objectively, I think it was probably a, a very bad decision. However, it did pay off in some ways, and I guess it's triggered an interesting set of circumstances in the rest of my life.
But I decided that, the school usually picks your electives for you, and that's what the teacher teaches. And I decided that I was gonna pick all my own stuff. And so I stopped going to most classes and on the top floor of the school there's a class, like near the end of the hallway and I pulled one of the desks out from that classroom and just pushed it to the end of the hall, and I would just go and sit there. So I would go to school, like I'd leave my house, go to school, and I would just sit at this desk by myself in like the back of this hallway. That's when I started studying and I taught myself that last part of the curriculum. And so I do my exams and mixed results is the result. So in some subjects like English, I did well beyond what I might have even expected. I got like, some of the, technically some of the, best results in the world. I pretty much got, I did both English language and English literature. I got a hundred percent on one and the other, I dropped like one mark. So that was like, the top 0.5% globally grade-wise and but that's good.
So on one hand you could say, oh I chased my curiosity and wow. The asymmetry of exponentially positive results. And then there were also some other subjects like economics and some other things I was supposed to do well or expected to do well and I did not do as well as I should have. And so I guess that's the balance. So I guess those are those two parts that I'd wanted to ask you about. One is like the level of structure we might need, and then also the extent to which it's worth letting kids chase their curiosity like me, who then maybe on average did not end up doing as well as I could have done if I just did what everyone else was doing.
[00:24:33] Danielle Strachman: I have a clarifying question. So when you were in that hallway, were you studying more on like the English side and you were like leaving the economics behind? Or were you also studying economics and were you doing all your own sort of self-study of these areas and then you took these tests and you're like, oh, I've got, I'm majorly above here, but it looks like I have a deficit over here kind of thing.
[00:24:54] David Elikwu: So I would probably say it might have been hard to gauge, I guess, because I wasn't in the class anymore and the balance was, I was studying everything. Also, because I hadn't been regularly studying everything. Throughout the year or throughout the past two years, cause I guess that's the other wrinkle is that when you do the IB, if I was doing A levels like we do, like everyone else does, you take exams at the end of the first year and then you also take exams at the end of the second year.
Whereas in the IB you just take exams at the end of the second year. So it's like two years worth of stuff where I haven't necessarily been tested on. And you figure out how much, you know at the end.
[00:25:30] Danielle Strachman: Sure. Okay. Interesting. That's fascinating to me that your school allowed you to even, you know, it's one thing for a school to allow a student to do their own self-study, even at the back of the classroom, the fact that you moved the desk out of the classroom and they were like, all right, this is where David's doing his thing. I think that's interesting.
I guess the hard part about. any sort of individual stories that we don't get to do the multiverse on it. You don't get to say okay, and then I went and I was inside those classrooms and this is how it came out. Like, maybe had you been in those classrooms, you would've been at sort of the middle of everything, but maybe your appreciation for english and literature wouldn't have been as high, for example. cause you wouldn't have been able to like dive as deep. And, I think it's a really interesting question that you ask because there's this sense that children should all be sort of traveling on this normative curve for their learning.
And what's interesting is that you do see these like, Peaks and valleys in terms of ability. And we even saw this inside of the Thiel Fellowship where it was like, okay, yeah, someone could talk our ear off about econ all day. But maybe like setting their own schedule when they became a Thiel fellow is difficult. Or certain skills just were like not as developed as like other skills, which like it makes sense. But we put this expectation on children that like, well you should at least be dead average on all the stuff. It can be challenging too, like anecdotally.
My colleague from the charter school, Christine, she has four children that she's homeschooled and her oldest, and she was a teacher before she was a homeschooler, like she taught in public school. And so she remembers that when she started with her oldest son, Miguel. She was like, well, you know, I've been a teacher. I can get the reading books out. And you know he was five when they started homeschooling and like, he did not want to do anything structured, anything that came out of a book. And it took I think a lot for her to kind of put it aside and it was also really difficult because I think at the age of like 11. Miguel was just barely reading. Just barely and like not well. And so her whole family was like, what are you doing? Your kid doesn't even read. They're 11 years old. She's like, well, you know, we read every day. And I read to him and she sort of had this sense of like, we're going to get there eventually. And what was really interesting is something clicked and when he was 12, he was reading like way above. It's like he just took off. He was reading way above grade level at that point.
And so it's, sort of always this challenge I think for educators and parents to kind of try to figure out like, Hey, is this person going to learn fundamentals that are going to take them into the future? And I'm a big proponent of exposing young people to different subject areas and topics and doesn't mean they have to become an expert in it. No, but like, I want them to have a taste of it and be able to get in there.
But it's interesting cause when I used to tutor, it was so hard, especially when I went over children's houses who were both public and private schoolers cause they would have this like homework half do stuff that I felt like I was like putting a bandaid over, a bullet wound of like, oh man, I'm here to do homework help. This is always really hard and I would try to make it relatable or I would sort of try to go like, okay, you know what, we're working a muscle right now. Like, okay, this child does not like algebra, but what we're working is a particular thinking style here. And like that's what we're really doing. And trying to abstract, being able to think in these types of ways may be helpful in the future. And I do think like some level of basics is important, but whether the person gets that basic at 8 years old versus 12 years old. It's unclear to me how much it has to be within a band. And the other thing too is like looking at, Are there things that are in the way? Are there more supports that are needed for a child to do something? I for example, read late. You know, my peers were reading in first grade. I was not reading in first grade. So it's like, okay, we got a tutor.
I got support and then I was able to do it. So I also think people need to look at what's the support that is needed for someone to start succeeding in something? But yeah, I have this other part that is okay, geometry, I was terrible at geometry, really good at algebra. Really, really good. I could puzzle anything together and figure out, solve equation. No problem. Geometry, don't get it at all. Is it the end of the world that I'm bad at geometry? No. Do I think I was supposed to go in that direction for my career for some reason? No. And that's okay.
So I, I just think, this such a hard question because there's like being flexible with what people know and what they learn and letting people excel in areas and letting them maybe atrophy in other areas. But then there's that question of like, is the atrophy, because like more focus is being putting into something else and there's like an acceleration happening, or is there an atrophy because there's more support needed?
And I think that can be tricky to figure out. So maybe that's where I land on that is something about are they excelling somewhere else? And that is where they're putting the energy versus like they need more support and they're not getting it. And that's why something is atrophying.
[00:30:35] David Elikwu: Okay, that makes sense. There was one question that just came to mind cause it links heavily to what you were saying. I would've saved it till later. But it makes sense to ask you now because it links to, I guess, the work that you do with 1517 and also maybe. Some of the work you did on the Thiel Fellowship, which is, you know, you're going out, you're trying to find the founders of tomorrow and the people that are gonna be breakout founders, but you're trying to find them early. So a lot of the people that you found working on the Thiel Fellowship, like Vitalik and the founder of multiple, multiple founders, and you can share some of those stories, but you found them all very early.
What I'm interested in as it relates to what you were just sharing, Is how you find the balance between not falling for the trap of precocity and just like you were sharing, there are some things where maybe early on. Even for you, it might have taken you a while just to learn a particular thing or like your friend's child. It took a while for them to get reading and then once they did, they just took off. And I think, David Epstein has a book called Range and he talks about this idea of precocity and he uses two models, one being Tiger Woods and the other being Roger Federer.
And Tiger Woods from, I think the age of two or three, he held a golf club for the first time and from then he was pretty much just a golf pro. He, he was an incredible prodigy at golf from a baby. And obviously it was drilled into him by his parents, particularly his dad. But he was always good at this one thing and drilled this one thing and showed the signs of being excellent from early.
And then the other model that David Epstein used is Roger Federer, who I think up until he was about 15. He did three sports through the year, so he did skiing, he played football or soccer, and then he also did tennis and I think one of the things David Epstein was mentioning is that actually it's all the different skills that Roger Federer was picking up that actually ended up helping him to be so good at tennis by the time he decided to focus on that. But the benefit was that he got to spend a lot of time finding match fit and a lot of time trying lots of different things. And so I guess the connection there to potentially some of what you do in selecting and trying to find really good founders early, how do you find the balance between.
Essentially not missing people who maybe just where things haven't clicked yet, and maybe where they have some of the raw ingredients, but they're just not ready at a particular point in time.
[00:32:47] Danielle Strachman: Yeah, so there's another book that I wanna bring up. I don't know if you've read about Peak and Peak is by Anders Erickson. And I think it's really fascinating, there's a chapter towards the end that I especially love. And what the whole book is about is really that yes, there is that initial spark of, Hey, this person seems to have an aptitude in this area, or an interest in this area.
But then the importance of very deliberate practice within that area and how it brings somebody forward. The chapter that I found just most salient was they talk about that everyone assumes that the best chess champions were probably the ones identified like super early. It's like, okay, cool. We identified you as someone who's has this aptitude and they're really good at it. It turns out it's the second tier people who tend to become the masters. Cause the second tier people have some aptitude, but they also had to start practicing and developing a habit of practicing. And then they're the ones, who like maybe the first tier people sort of shine for a while, but kind of like what you were talking about a little bit earlier in your own journey is maybe it's like, I don't have to study, I'm just good at this. I'm just good at this. And then you hit something where you're like, oh crap, I have to study now. It was the people who were in that first year when they would later get to like, oh, I have to practice and try at this. They hadn't gotten practice and practicing yet, and it seems like they start dropping off, whereas the people who needed to try a little bit at the beginning seemed to outshine those like first tier peers and those are the people who are becoming the chess masters.
And the thing that I think is really interesting is that the author brings up this sense of loss actually of how many people are we losing to because we're putting them in a fixed place of oh, you seem really good at math, so we're gonna put you in the advanced math class and you're gonna be, math, everything throughout versus someone who's struggling a little bit, but they're like starting to do it. But then they get placed in like, oh, well you're gonna be in a standard class cause you're not as good. And so this author is talking about delaying that amount of placement until later just based on some of this other research of hey, it actually looks like it's the second tier people who are like outshining in the long run. But in the short run it's hard to see.
And so it sounds to me like you're getting at some of this too with some of the founders we work with. And what I would say is that we are looking for people who have different sort of qualities and attributes and they're showing their aptitude for wanting to, like, they're really hungry to go deep in certain areas.
And like that might be coming out in the work they're showing or how they express something. Does it mean that we're giving, you know, we're like sort of writing checks, you know, on the 15, 17 side to like every one of those people. No, but it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, about environment of, can we help to put them in a more satiating environment with more resources?
And there's a few ways we do that with 1517. So one way is through our community. We have a really active community of a few thousand young people, and we do in-person events and we do online work as well and online communities and things like that. And what we find is that like we have an event coming up next week, our summit it's gonna have 200 young people from all over the world. Normally we have those events be like 400 people, but we're a little bit bandwidth constrained on the location this year. What we hear is wow, I don't get to meet other young people like me very often. And so that is just such a resource to these teens is oh wow. Like I'm talking to other people who, it's not weird to them why I would be wanting to geek out on this one area, or building a project or building a nonprofit or building a startup. And it's like socially acceptable in this community where you come and people aren't, What? What undergrad are you at? Like, we're not asking those questions. It's more like, what do you like to geek out about? Let's talk about that.
To us it's more about what's the right environment at the right time. This is something we saw in the Thiel Foundation too was, we started doing these community building events and we were getting to meet these people who maybe on paper for example, it's so obvious, but viscerally it's even more exciting to see that everyone is 10 x what they sound like on paper. So it's like someone writes in about what they're working on and the articulation isn't that good or doesn't sound that exciting, but then you get on a call with them and they're like, really lit up about it and you're like, wow, this person's really interesting. And then it's this question of, hey, do we wanna bring them into the environment of our community? We have a grant program we run where sometimes we'll say, Hey, like we wanna kick you a little bit of resources, a thousand bucks to build what you need to build to get to the next level. Sometimes it's an investment opportunity and like we think about it in a scaffolded way.
And one thing that was hard during the Thiel Fellowship was like we had our community and we had our, you know, you get a hundred thousand dollars a year for two year program and there wasn't really an in between. And we had this insight during the last year that we were there that maybe people don't need a hundred thousand dollars to get started. Maybe they need a thousand bucks. And so we started piloting that a little bit and one of the young people that we gave a thousand dollars to at an old Thiel summit. He sold his company right actually, it was right when the pandemic hit. And he sold the company, I think it was, it was somewhere around like $30 million. And it was like, Wow, that was in part kicked off by a $1,000 grant to get this person sort of started on what they were doing.
So I think that the sort of question is an interesting one of when and what environment is going to get someone to like take those next steps. And sometimes for us, that's community, sometimes it's a grant, sometimes it's an investment. But for us it really is hey, like which bucket is this? And if someone really values aligned and they're really eager, It's like they're going to usually fit into that community bucket. And I know some communities that are more about coolness factor, and I've talked to a lot of young people who are like, oh, I didn't get into this community. I didn't get into that community. It feels very high school and very clique-ish. And I'm like, come be in our community. We're gonna be here for you in the long term.
And there's lots of people that we've worked with where we've said no to investment. Maybe they were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and they're like, yeah, I'm ready for a million bucks. And we're like, we don't quite think you're ready for a million bucks. But we're wrong a lot, that's our job. But sometimes we can't get there on that. But we can get there on, Hey, you should be in our orbit and environment and have other resources.
[00:39:03] David Elikwu: Sure. That makes a lot of sense to me. I would love to know what you, I guess it's what you look for in a founder or what you think makes a great founder and what aspects of that might be distinct from just the people that you might let into the community.
Because the key piece that I'm thinking about is falling on from what you were mentioning with the Erickson quote about the potential for people being left behind.
One thing I've been finding interesting as I've been thinking recently is there's so many different programs and VCs and all these stuff, all these things that are geared towards okay, finding founders or creating founders and it becomes almost it's own, there's an archetype of this is what a founder is supposed to look like. This is what you are supposed to be doing. How it's supposed to be.
And I think there's a lot of people that could potentially be great founders. But could also just be potentially great founding team members like this could just be someone that would be just as excellent to have on the founding team. They might not necessarily need to be in terms of title, the CEO, but they should a hundred percent be building something awesome. And I think it is strange how, because of the way that we have lionized quote unquote founders, or at least like the core founder as the CEO, it can give people the impression that everyone needs to have their own business and everyone needs to have their own thing that they're building as opposed to going off and building something with other people.
So I'd love to know maybe the approach that you take. So first of all, like how you think about what a great founder looks like, and then the second part is, how do you think about that as it interfaces with the community?
[00:40:32] Danielle Strachman: Yeah, absolutely. So I have to plug my co-founder's book for a second Paper Belt On Fire by Michael Gibson. We have a whole chapter in that book. And I say we because it's like our work, but he wrote it. He wrote a whole chapter about the characteristics that we look for and one of those characteristics we call hyper fluency.
And there's two parts to hyper fluency, and I think the first part is obvious, and I think the second part is not the first part of hyper fluency is the ability to talk backwards and forwards, ad nauseam about a space. You can just tell the person is like eating, drinking, sleeping, like this thing that they have. The thing that's not so obvious, I think is that they're able to scaffold their language. They're able to talk to someone who's an expert in the field, but they're also able to talk to someone who's like a total neophyte and is like, sorry, what's quantum computing? Let's start at the basics.
Oftentimes when people pitch us, especially on the deep tech side, we tell people, talk to us like we are the dumbest golden retrievers who have ever met. And that helps us to learn. I call VC advanced tutoring, but we're not tutoring people. People are tutoring us all day long on things. And that ability to be able to communicate about a difficult topic. We think it's really important cause it also leads into leadership and team building of , if you're gonna be bringing other people on board, whether that's investors, other team members, customers, you need to be able to be adaptable and fluid in how you communicate about something instead of always leaning on like, oh, but I'm an expert and I'm up here. Well that's, speaking like an expert isn't gonna work. If you're talking to us at 1517, we're dumb golden retrievers. There's gonna be a mismatch on that. So that's a really important skill for us.
Another one that we look for a lot is I think in the book, we call it Acorn to Oak. And it's this idea of having a really big mission of hey, I like to ask people, what do you wanna make absurd in the future, like seven years, 10 years, 20 years in the future? And then they'll give us some big answer about what the future looks like and paint us this narrative.
But then I also like to ask them down over here. What are you doing on Friday? How are you actually getting this started and putting one foot in front of the other? And there are people who can answer the big question and there are people who can answer, what are you doing on Friday? But I find the person who can answer both of those and like kind of tie it together is kind of few and far between. And it's not usually when people especially are pitching us for investment, it's a whole team. And so some of the team is gonna have different types of articulation about, Hey, here's the brass tacks of what we're doing on Friday and here's the big mission of what we're doing. So we look for that collaboration.
There are other things too within the team dynamic. Like we've started asking teams when they're pitching us on Zoom, not to be in two separate rooms from each other if they're in the same place. It's like, I wanna see the interaction of how they are with each other. And there's something that is, we've noticed over time that is, founders who have like profound respect for each other or founders where like you can just tell like, you know, we had this one founding team who came into our office and they were just finishing each other's sentences. I was like, wow. y'all spend a lot of time with each other and that's really important to us. Or sometimes I'll notice team members who like literally look at each other with admiration. You could just see that they're like so proud of the person they're working with and you're like, this is a great co-founding relationship like, this is really there. So we look for things like that. The ability to execute as part of that what are you doing on Friday? I hear from a lot of people who want to start companies, who are not technical in the domain that they wanna get started in. And yes, you can pull on other people and you will be pulling in other people who are more expert than you. But we do think that it's really important to have like the early chops on something to be able to get started. It's generally too expensive to hire other people.
And to your point about joining other teams, yeah, I think it's sort of like this sad state of affairs that everyone thinks they need to co-found a venture scalable startup. You can have an incredible career working with another team. You can have an incredible career and life. Doing a smaller business, but everyone tries to bucket it into venture, scalable stuff. I certainly think our work at the Thiel Foundation and so on has made that more popular. So, you know, I'm like, oh, all right. We're a little bit responsible for this meme. But to your point, I always tell people if someone else out there is doing something and they're further ahead than you, and you think you have something to contribute, like go out and talk to them. And, you know, sometimes we'll have teams that come to us at certain topic areas that some of our other teams are working. We're like, you all should talk. And maybe you should be separate and do your own thing, but maybe you should join forces. And, you know, I'm sort of agnostic as to what that looks like.
The incentives of founding something and like the popularity around it are so high that yeah, everybody, everybody and their sibling thinks that they should be out there starting a venture scalable thing or tries to pitch sort of their project, whatever that may be, as a venture scalable thing. And I think there's gonna be a lot of people who miss out on a lot of learnings that would eventually lead them potentially into doing something that is scalable. But not everything starts as that to your point.
[00:45:51] David Elikwu: Fair. One other question I was really interested to ask you, and maybe it's worth, I guess maybe let's take a step back and I'd love if you could describe what 1517 is and the work that you do, cause I think a key piece that we haven't touched on specifically is the age range and I guess the stage of life that some of these people are, that you look for and invest in.
[00:46:10] Danielle Strachman: Yeah, absolutely. So we don't have any like particular age range but we have a narrative that we're looking for and that narrative predominantly are people who do not have a college degree, who are getting their education by building a business. We have teen teams right now who are, you know, we have a founder who just sent us his prom photo, and I was like, oh my gosh, this is amazing.
Who's building a company and just raised a couple million bucks and is very young. Started the company when he was 14 years old. He's 17 now. And we invested when he was 16. And then we have what I call our OG dropouts. These are people who are in their fifties who didn't finish their college degree and were doing it way before anyone sort of thought it was like, a normal thing or a cool thing to do. And so we love that narrative no matter sort of how old the team is. That's sort of one bucket of the type of people that we invested. And then we had to start thinking about at one point, okay, if we were gonna break our dropout thesis or non-degree thesis, who would we break it for?
And what was happening is we were a couple years into running fund one, eight years ago. I guess we, you know, this is six years ago at this point. We were finding was these very deep tech sci-fi tech founders were coming to us of, Hey, I'm doing like this crazy thing that has a lot of R and D to it. It's gonna take years to figure out something that's commercializable but we wanna do it. And we were in the last stages of fund one and we decided to, we called it a Hail Mary. We're like, all right. This guy Ben came in, and is working on quantum computing. He sounds crazy. When he first came in and talked to us about what he was doing, he was like, which level of physics should I start at? And we were like, I don't know, like, high school level. Somewhere in there. He starts talking to us. We're like, let's go to middle school. Like, we need, you know, we need this dumbed down for us. But yeah, his company's doing really well. It's called Adam Computing.
I'd say about 15% of our portfolio are these people who may be PhD up all different ages who are working on sci-fi tech. What we're finding now is we've done a review of our portfolio over the last eight years and the N on this is very small, but we have a handful of people who are both dropouts and science fiction, and those people are doing some really interesting work. And so we're starting to like look at how do we quadruple down on that category of the people who are taking the leap early who are making research and sort of scientific and invention discoveries early. There's some interesting research too around that the earlier someone starts as an inventor, the earlier they also get to their like big eureka sort of moment. What we're starting to also see is that the later people start sort of inventing for their own and not just working on someone else's work, the later it happens, but also once you get past, generally it's like 40 ish. The sense that someone is going to find that like big sort of eureka moment of like, wow, this is the thing actually looks like it plummets. So I'm 43, so I'm like, damn it. I thought, you know, hopefully, you know, if there's outliers, we all have time to do our discoveries. But we really wanna help get people to the frontiers really, really early. And so with 1517 we have our community, we have our grant program, and then we make investments in founders at the angel and pre-seed stage. Who fit those narratives. Most of our founders do tend to be, I would say, around early twenties, mid twenties, just because of the thesis. But if someone fits those sort of narrative criteria, we're always happy to learn more and see what we wanna do as far as investment.
[00:49:56] David Elikwu: okay, that makes a lot of sense.
I think it's a really important hypothesis. I think it cuts both ways. So right. now there is a sense in which it is vogue to drop out of college and. Oh, you know, I went to Stanford and I dropped out and blah, blah, blah. And I guess this maybe goes back a bit to the prototypical kind of founder thing where, there is a sense in which, oh, if you did these special steps then you must be great.
But I think what you are talking about in terms of this thesis is different from that, And it's really about finding people that are, it really goes back to what we were saying before, self-directed, following their curiosity and having their curiosity match their actions. Going back to the question that you asked about, what are you doing on Friday?
So it's not just that you are, you have the head knowledge and you are interested in something intellectually, but it's, are you actually the kind of person that is willing to do this work on a Friday? And Friday in particular, not Monday morning, but in a time where people might just be going out for drinks or just going out to relax. Not that you can't relax, but are you willing to chase this idea in wherever needs to go?
[00:50:55] Danielle Strachman: Yeah. No, that, that's really important to us.
[00:50:58] David Elikwu: I wanted to ask about how did you go from, then, maybe we're going back two steps here. From you start this charter school to you are now a founding member of the Thiel Fellows team. So what was that journey like?
[00:51:11] Danielle Strachman: Yeah so I with my co-founder Christine, ran Innovations Academy for the first two years and probably the most I mean, it was such an impactful step to go from having my own tutoring company to being like? wow, okay, we could scale our work and have more impact here. And it was my first time running like an actual organization and the responsibility lying on a team and it was just really amazing, amazing time.
And what I also learned was that, you hear these stories or like business books will talk about oh, if you love doing whatever it is, if you love doing yoga, you might not like running a yoga studio or if you like baking cakes, you might not wanna run a bakery. And it's kind of the same thing, like, I loved working with young people and being an educator and then all of a sudden I start this school and then I was disconnected from the students cause I was in administration.
And so I was then interfacing predominantly with parents and administrators and the school district and I was doing it of service, for the children in our school. But I was no longer getting that fun teacher moment of like, oh look, the light bulb went off and oh, we worked on this cool project and things like that. So after a couple of years it became clear to me that, being a school administrator was not my particular passion or calling. And blessed my co-founder Christine, she has been there for 15 years now running the school. And I'm still on the board of the school, so have a higher level role.
But I moved up to the Bay Area and I did the, you know, we talked about staycations for a brief moment earlier, and I did a staycation and I told myself, I'm gonna decompress. I mean, you know, I'm going to sort of de work myself for a few months. And I ended up moving up to the Bay Area. The reason for the move from San Diego to the Bay was, cause I had a boyfriend who lived in the area and was like, all right, time to cut the long distance and, I'll move up in that direction.
I joined a co-housing community that had sort of this eco village bent. So what was funny to me at the time, I remember thinking like, okay, yeah, I'm not gonna work. I'm gonna take some time off. Gonna be able to like, sort of like relax and let my mind simmer down from being a school principal. But what do I do? I join a co-op that is starting and getting off the ground and I'm digging in the dirt multiple times a week and dealing with community house issues of how do we resolve conflict here? And I was like, wait, that was not relaxing. But I had told myself I would take six months to not work, which was huge for me cause I've worked in some capacity you know, since I was like 12 years old. So I have a very strong work ethic, and the idea of burning through savings was terrifying for me. But I was like, okay, I'm committed to doing this.
And three months into my staycation, I got a call from this woman, Lindy Fishburne, who worked at Thiel Foundation. And her exact words to me were, Danielle, the foundation has lost their minds. They're running this new program, you have to get over here. I was like, wait, what? And I had seen something in the news about the Thiel Fellowship, and I had seen Peter's interview with Sarah Lacey, and Peter was talking about the program, like it had all the stuff. It was like, oh yeah, we're starting this program and the application's online and me being a charter school Director and Founder, you have to have all your ducks in a row. You have to have like, okay, this is the staff and this is a 400 page document about what we're gonna do. And so I was coming with that operator's mindset of like, oh, they must have it all figured out. And I knew people who worked over there, so I could have reached out, but I didn't because I made this assumption of like, oh, they must have it figured out. And then Lindy calls me and tells me, Hey, they don't have anybody running the program. You'd be perfect for it. You've gotta get over here. And I was like, what? Who starts a program and doesn't have the team running it? Like, I'm so confused. And it's like, okay, Peter, he's super creative and had been thinking about education for a long time. And Peter is also really good at striking when the iron is hot on something. People talk about building the airplane on the way down and that kind of mentality is I think very much in his blood. And so I came on board, I was interviewed by the head of the foundation and then I came on board something like 10 days later to run the Thiel fellowship.
And it was really wonderful because there was like this idea, but it wasn't fleshed out of like, well, how are we gonna do this? And how are we gonna run an application? And I love getting into that ops mode of what are we gonna do here and what are we gonna do with these young people? And I wanted to bring my own vision and values to it too. And had they come to me and said, oh, we have it all laid out. Here's what we want. You're gonna manage this for us. I would've been like, no, I'm not interested in managing somebody else's dream and like having a bunch of to-dos, but if I can be part of that creative process and iterate on what we do and be part of the development of something, that's what I want to do. They were like, yeah, no, Tabla Rossa, let's go. And I was like, okay, staycation be damned, it's over. And then I got started with them. It was just this perfect fit.
And so one of my like, career lessons there that I like to tell people is, if you see something that you think is really awesome, to the point you made earlier of like, people think they have to found something, reach out. Like you do not know what's going on under the hood, there might be a whole engine in there and it might be empty. And like you may have a lot to add to it. But you have to reach out to the organization or the startup and say like, Hey, yeah, I'm super passionate about this too. Like, what do you need and how can I help? And you know, not make the assumption I did of like, oh, they must have it all figured out and have a staff and all this stuff. So that's what brought me into the Thiel Foundation Orbit.
And also that, you know, there's that a lot of career is about who you meet and who you keep in touch with. And so, Lindy knew about my charter school work and I popped into her head as a person to call. So it was not like, oh, I applied for a role that was out there. I don't even know that they knew what role they were trying to fulfill when I first came on board.
[00:57:12] David Elikwu: Sure. That makes a lot of sense. I'm not sure the extent to which you worked closely with Peter during your time there, but I would love to know if there is anything in particular that you think you learn from working with him or being in his orbit that might be not just like, I don't dunno what you read in the New York Times or whatever is commonly out there.
[00:57:31] Danielle Strachman: You know, there's a few things and our team would meet with Peter at like Critical Junctions where it's like, okay, it's time that we're gonna, here's who we think that the top picks are for the fellowship and you know, we wanna have you sign off on it and things like that. There were a few things. I think just being in his sort of world inside the Thiel Capital office, cause the Thiel Foundation was inside Thiel Capital really thinking about incentive alignment and like, Hey, how is this thing we're going? Like that we're going to do incentivize or disincentivize people sort of moving forward. That was just something that was sort of baked into his thinking all the time that I noticed. And so then sort of like osmosis when you're in an environment and you're like, oh, okay, I'm starting to think about incentives more.
The other thing too is like, people talk about first principles thinking and like to me it's always this like figurehead statement and sounds very highfalutin and, and whatever. Honestly, sometimes when people use that statement I'm like, ugh, just gag me. Like, I don't know about this. But what I noticed about Peter is like, we would ask him a question and he's just so thoughtful. And it was interesting, it wasn't until he was on sort of like road shows for talking about zero to one.
Once he had written a book and put it out there, in that particular book, I felt like sometimes was hearing like, okay, this is kind of his sound bite on these things. But especially before that and sometimes I think people make fun of him for this, but Peter will kind of look at the floor and you can see the wheels are turning and he's thinking, and then he'll give you an answer on something. And I used to joke that like, It could be Monday. And you'd ask Peter, Hey Peter, what's your favorite color? And he'd like, look at the floor and start thinking about, what his answer would be. And then he'd be like, okay, yeah, like my favorite color is blue. And then the next day, but Peter, what's your favorite color? He like does the same thing again where it's like, okay, looking at the floor, hey, the markets are doing this today. My favorite color is red. And so it always kept us on our toes a lot because what Peter was thinking one day to seemingly the next day would be like a 180 because he actually is updating his mental framework on things.
And the last thing I'll say too is that sometimes it was really like, it was really challenging sometimes because like, I'm an educator and I believe that part of me at least believes that you can like teach things to people and you can sort of espouse knowledge. And sometimes we would go in. And we would talk to him about maybe people he had interviewed for the Thiel Fellowship, people we had interviewed for the Thiel Fellowship. And we'd be like, oh, what did you think of this person? And the educator in me was hoping for like, yeah, I noticed this thing about the person, and here's another thing that I was looking for in like real articulated specifics. And Peter would sometimes just say, yeah, person just doesn't match my pattern recognition. And for a while, for like the first six months, I was like, oh my God, what do I even do with that information? I don't have that pattern recognition. And at first I also thought it meant. Okay, he's like super calculated thinking about this answer. And that's what he means here. And then six months in, it dawned on me that at least my interpretation of what he said was like, doesn't match my intuition.
Peter is a highly intuitive person. I think people think like, oh, okay, yeah, like chess master, obviously extremely good at all his domains. He must be like super calculated. He is leaning into a vast amount of knowledge that can't be articulated because he's learned so much. And actually I remember this is a couple years ago, he was asking us about. What we thought about some of the newer sort of choices for the Thiel Fellowship in terms of Thiel Fellows and the people who run the program now have somewhat tended to veer away from the super early crazy people that we were backing and favor of people who are more advanced with what they're doing.
And I felt like I had this amazing full circle moment cause Peter said like, well, what do you think? And you know, about these particular people that they picked. And I was like, you know, Peter doesn't match my pattern recognition. And he started nodding and he's like, yeah, no, I can see that. And that's like, oh my God. Like I'm having this very full circle moment of understanding what he's talking about. But I remember being so frustrated because what I wanted was specifics. I wanted him to be able to tell us, these are exactly the things you look for. But it's like through experience that you have the visceral sense of something that's different than having the knowledge of something. And that's what he had that I now understand why it's hard to articulate that.
[01:02:06] David Elikwu: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I wanna ask you one more question, which is on this same note, which is really around this idea of how do you find such great talent, and I think this is, yeah, specifically the process and how wide do you cost your a nut and everything that goes into that because, and I guess there's maybe three pieces that I think go into this.
One is, just that last part you were saying. I think is really interesting to me because it makes complete sense when you say it about pattern matching and pattern recognition. But I also can see in another context, you get a lot of maybe VCs or people in general making hiring decisions and they say, ah, this is pattern recognition. And all they're doing is hiring people that look like them, right? They are just like my, my pattern recognition is hiring people that just look like
[01:02:51] Danielle Strachman: look like me have a degree from where I
[01:02:54] David Elikwu: Exactly, exactly, exactly. So it's like, I was successful because I went to Stanford and I did this. And so if you fit that mold, you are also going to be perfect. And so it's making that distinction. And then another piece of it that I think exists also is that people very often abstract their decision making up the chain or like up the funnel.
And so, how you might see this play out is, let's say you have a 29 year old that is going to apply for a job at a startup. And then you go and ask the startup like, oh, what's your special source for making these hiring decisions? And they'll say, oh, the honest truth is, oh, we just buy the special source wholesale from McKinsey because they are really good at deciding who is smart. And if we trust them, then maybe we just add a little sprinkle to it and it's good. And then you go to mcKinsey and you say, okay, what's your special source? How do you make these decisions? and they say, oh, actually we just go to Harvard, cause Harvard has the special sauce and we just add a little sprinkle to it and then it's good. And then you go to Harvard and basically you can just go up the chain and it starts with whatever school you to
[01:03:53] Danielle Strachman: certain high schools And
[01:03:54] David Elikwu: Exactly, Exactly, you went to a school when you were 15, and people that go to that school get good GPAs and suddenly everyone is now trusting that you can follow this track and now you're gonna end up many years later at the same time.
[01:04:07] Danielle Strachman: Yeah, and then it even filters into the lower education levels where it's like, one of our investors her son was interviewing for kindergarten a few years ago, which means the family was interviewed for kindergarten. And she was told by a school that rejected the family, well, we just don't think you're ambitious enough. Like, we don't think like you have ambitious enough goals for your son to be enrolled in this kindergarten. And it was like, what? Like what kind of school is this? So yeah, I think that kind of like track to an ivy keeps getting filtered lower and lower.
Yeah, for us it's interesting because for us we call it turning over rocks. It's like, oh, I went to this campus and I found an interesting young person and like, we're turning over rocks and we, you go to a hackathon and you know, my favorite is to kind of look for the young person who is like staring off in this into space and they're by themselves cause they built their own thing. And you go up and you talk to them and you're like, whoa, okay, you are really super nerded out on security and you're talking to me like, I should know what you're talking about and I have no idea. But we're gonna talk for a while and we're gonna figure this out.
And sometimes, especially when we're on campuses, we'll ask people like, Hey, you're really great. Like, we'd love to have you as part of our community or maybe a grantee. And we're not really sourcing like deals on campus that often because the number of people who are working on a startup on campus is gonna be lower. I mean, sometimes that does happen, it's a natural outcome. But we'll also say like, Hey, who's like the geekiest geek you know on this campus? Who's someone that we should talk to? Because we also have resources we wanna give them too. People will be like, oh, you should talk to this person and, you know, then we'll talk to that person. We ask them the same question. So sometimes I like to say we try to go like four geek layers deep of like, okay, let's find these really outlier people. And they might not look like they're super good at school. They might just be really focused on whatever that thing is that they're super passionate about and they happen to be on this campus.
So that's kind of one way that looks is, is really just being boots on the ground in different places. Things like Twitter have actually been really, really useful. We've been able to put out things like, Hey, we're gonna be in this area, and we'll have like young people come out of the woodwork you know, who are like, oh yeah, I'm gonna drive an hour to the coffee shop that you guys are at because I really wanna meet to talk about what I'm working on.
It's like, wow, okay. That's a lot of commitment to do that. And we also really work to make ourselves as accessible as possible. We read every contact form that comes in. I'd say we like respond to 85% or 90% of them because most people, Like again, we know no one presents themselves super well on paper. So it's like, okay, we wanna talk to this person a little more. And I can't tell you the number of times, like so many of our founders have had some of the worst pitch decks I've ever seen where it's like, okay, this is like one of our founders who is doing extraordinarily well, is extraordinarily brilliant. Like had in the pitch deck that all iPhone users were their target market. And it was like, okay, that's obviously like super lazy thinking and not true. And we've seen it happen where investors will look at a deck and they'll be like, nah, I'm not gonna talk to them. And I'm like, but no, you're literally looking at like 1 - 100th of the person through these crappy materials they put together. So for us it is a very manual human powered process. We talked a lot of other firms that are like, oh yeah, we use a algorithm on LinkedIn to source and I think that's where it's also getting at like, okay, they probably had certain accolades.
When people come to us, we don't even ask them, where did you drop outta school? Like, I actually would prefer not to be biased by that kind of information. It's more like, tell me about what you're working on and what you're doing and , where you wanna go with this. So those are our processes are very, very human powered manual. And gosh, there was a second piece to your question and my brain's having trouble looping back around to it.
[01:08:16] David Elikwu: I guess it's really. I mean, I think you've kind of answered it. It was around, I guess the process of finding them, but also like how wide do you cast your net and how you are actually able to find and source a wide range of talent. And I think just to double down, like part of the reason I was asking is because you've had such a good track record of actually finding like Vitalik before launching Ethereum and so many of these really good examples that actually stand out as opposed to sometimes what you might see, let's say with some venture capitalists at least, in the common zeitgeist is, oh, I want to invest, who's invested before me? If you tell me these other big names did it, then I'll do it.
[01:08:53] Danielle Strachman: Yeah, I didn't understand that. That's how like I'll be generous and say 80 plus percent, it's probably closer to 90%. But yeah, I always thought like, before 1517, we had never run a venture fund before. I thought the way we do it is the way other people do it, where it's like, oh, they have their own thesis and they're out there sourcing deals like with founders and in communities. No, most people and venture source deals from other people in venture, and by talking to them about who they're talking to. And It's really weird to me. I'm like, wait a second, what? Like whenever I talk to people who are getting into venture newly, I'm like, go where the founders are like, go to founder events. Like that's how you're going to source deals. But people think I can get to like the better part of the funnel if I talk to this other fund and then find out who they like.
And you know, I can't tell you how many times I've gone to networking events and people will sort of present themself in their fund for like a minute and then say something like, what deals do you have for me? And I'm like, what? Like this is so, it's so outside how we do things that it took me years to understand that this is how other venture people do it. And for us, a lot of it, like our ideal case is that we actually meet someone when they're 15, 16, 17, doing a talk at a high school and then we keep in touch over time. And then they come to us later and say, Hey, I'm you know, I'm building a little something here. And we've had that happen a number of times. And right now, a couple years ago we had this inkling at 1517, we were like, starting at college is too late in a way that we should start tapping into high school markets and we started tapping into high school markets. And you know, we're mentoring a bunch of people who are 15, 16 years old. And just keeping them in that community and in that orbit.
I am sure that we are going to invest in some of these people when it's like, Hey, I'm doing my first startup now and, here's what's going on. But yeah, we do a lot of our own sourcing. It's very rare that another investor is going to find, a rock that they turned over and they're like, look, I found a cool 17 year old. It's like, it's not what they do.
[01:10:58] David Elikwu: Yeah. And I think the community piece of what you guys do is super important as well. And probably, I can't explain how underrated that must be because I remember, even when I think about maybe some of the experiences I've had, so I started my first business when I was like oh 14 as a like, registered company. And you are just, it's, very alienated cause no one else is doing that. It's just a weird thing. I can't imagine how different, not that, oh my gosh, I'm gonna become Mark Zuckerberg or anything. That's not the point. But you know how different your trajectory could end up becoming if you could connect with other people who are also have a similar bent, right. Other people that are similarly weird that are also interested in just making stuff and, putting stuff out there and doing all kinds of
[01:11:39] Danielle Strachman: interesting things.
Yeah. Well, it shows you what's possible too, It's like, oh, it's possible to start a company when you're really young or yeah, it's possible to start doing research work now instead of having to wait until after one has their PhD or, something like that. I think just seeing the possibility space really opens people's eyes up to like oh, I could, give this a go. And we hear anecdotal stories like that from Thiel Fellows too, of like, being part of that community aspect was actually more important than the money itself. It was like just being with peers and like challenging each other and you know, moving each other forward was really important.
[01:12:13] David Elikwu: Okay. I think the second to last question that I would ask is, I'm interested to know what you think about, I guess the journey of a founder. I know like you've said, I think sometimes when a founder comes to you or a founding team comes to you, the idea that they come with might not be the idea that they end up building. They might be wrong about something and they might also just be super young, right. Whatever they're doing right now might not be their breakout thing, but like you said, I think you mentioned the study where the earlier you start the sooner you might get to your breakout idea. And what I am interested in is the idea that part of what maybe holds people back from pursuing entrepreneurship as their primary thing is the fact that when you take the traditional route, it is its own safety cushion.
So when you pay for college, you are buying optionality, right? I made a joke the other day that, you know, essentially when you go to Stanford, you are paying, what you pay is what you get back in VC distribution. Like you are just putting down a check in advance so that when you have a good idea, you'll get the VC money for it.
And, but then down the line, let's say you take the route of just becoming an entrepreneur or just becoming a founder down the line, if it doesn't work out. There's the balance of, oh, but there's no safety net, and you still have to figure out what life is gonna be like and what else you're going to do. Whereas if you had just gone to Harvard or stanford or gone to any other university, then there's a safety net Because of all the stamps you've got and all the logos you've collected, you are kind of always going to be fine And you never really have to think too much about what comes next. So I wonder how you think about that.
[01:13:42] Danielle Strachman: Sure, Yeah. But for us, like one of the things that we've seen for our founders is like, if things aren't working out, we wanna talk to them about that like really early of like, Hey, this is not going the direction that you want it to go. And we wanna find that soft landing for people. In terms of like, is there an acquisition? Do you wanna work somewhere else? do you wanna try pivoting and doing something else? And what we've largely seen in the startup community is that like founders are really hard workers and like getting hired somewhere else tends to be like, this is the worst case scenario.
The worst case scenario is that you get a job somewhere else. And so that sort of safety net that you were talking about of school being its own safety net, it's like the working environment is also a net for that as well.
[01:14:26] David Elikwu: Sure that makes sense. Okay. If I can ask one last question, I would just ask very quickly, I've heard you mention in the past that one of the things you look for is people that are kind of two or three standard deviations out in curiosity, and I'd love to know how you think people could, I guess, cultivate that for themselves and push the boundaries of their curiosity.
[01:14:45] Danielle Strachman: Yeah, You know, someone gave me an amazing definition of curiosity recently. This woman told me there are two parts to curiosity. There's asking good questions and not just good questions, but just being someone who asks questions, like practicing that skill, but then being the type of person who will start putting actions towards those questions of like, well, what happens if I do X? And now, What if I do Y?
And I thought that was really interesting like even for myself. I am, I think I'm a great question asker. I love to dive into things with people and like get right in there. I'm not always good at the action oriented part where it's like, I have lots of different hobbies and things like that, that I do where I'm like, oh if I engage in that action piece more, like I'd be a curious action oriented person instead of just a questioner. And I think that piece you see a lot in people, like someone like Vitalik Buder and where it's like, okay, clearly lots of questions being asked and there's that doing component with it. And I think when we talk about two or three standard deviations out on curiosity, it's really about engaging that doing aspect that we're seeing in the people we work with.
[01:15:49] David Elikwu: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. Well, Danielle, thank you so much for making the time. This has been a really great conversation. I've really enjoyed it.
[01:15:57] Danielle Strachman: Yeah. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate being here.
[01:16:00] David Elikwu: Thank you so much for tuning in. Please do stay tuned for more. Don't forget to rate, review and subscribe. It really helps the podcast and follow me on Twitter feel free to shoot me any thoughts. See you next time.