My New York Adventure: Under 20 Summit
Pulkit Jaiswal, 17 November 2012
I took some time off my 16 hour a day work and flew to New York for Thiel Foundation’s Under 20 Summit last weekend (9-11 November). I have to say (and I rarely get so excited) – what an amazing weekend it was! For those of you who don’t know what Thiel Fellowship is: the program awards 20 budding entrepreneurs $100,000 grants each to work on developing innovative technology ideas and get mentored by hundreds of awesome mentors in and around the Silicon Valley.
I was in Beijing the week before the summit (attending a conference at Peking University) and was flying into NYC on the 7th. I wanted to arrive a couple of days before the summit so that I could spend some time with my to-be housemates and explore NYC. I was constantly in touch with people in NYC and Thiel Foundation to check on the status of the city and the event venue after Sandy. And it sucked that Facebook didn’t work in China, causing communication problems (#greatfirewallofchina). I was worried that my flight won’t take off at all. Luckily, after a mammoth 17-hour flight (and a lot of turbulence), I did land at JFK.
I was staying in an apartment in Brooklyn, which we had booked on Airbnb. I was greeted by 3 feet of snow on the way.
Scene outside LIRR.
The weather never damped my spirit. When the rest of my housemates had arrived, things got much better. It was a feast for the ears to hear such brilliant entrepreneurs brainstorming and debating under one roof. This is what I loved about the summit – It brought awesome people together under one roof (and in this case, in one house in an uptown Brooklyn neighbourhood). I met a couple of these guys at the last summit in San Francisco and was totally blown away by their ideas. I got a number of great insights on my projects and we helped each other with executing our ideas in a better way.
Luckily, the next few days were heavenly warm, providing perfect conditions for the summit. The event was held in the multicultural, rich community called 92Y Tribeca. I like digging up history of people I meet/places I visit. Here’s a small history lesson on the summit venue :
92Y’s full name is 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association and was founded in 1874. In 2008, 92Y opened a space in Tribeca to bring together and inspire the diverse community of NYC. This place has been marked by the presence of some well known musicians, artists, performers and movie directors (and now budding entrepreneurs under 20) . It has about 10 different program areas for lectures, film screenings, music performances etc.
The foyer consists of a cafe’ which provided a perfect space for young attendees and mentors to mix and interact with each other over food and drinks. Overall, 92Y was a perfect choice for such an event.
The summit began with keynote sessions followed by a series of presentations by some of the mentors and Thiel fellows. The session was followed by a Q&A round, which was very entertaining. Someone asked the fellows about their ‘AHA moments’. I could personally relate to some of the answers. Brian Wong, one of the mentors, answered by saying that as soon as he had his AHA moment, he opened a Photoshop canvas and drew and named all elements. So while showing his stuff to people, they would understand that he had some basics like a static HTML and storyboard ready. Eden Full, who’s working on Sun Saluter, went to the store to buy supplies and got straight to work right after her ‘Aha moment’. Paul DeJoe found a tech co-founder. Some priceless nuggets of advice were given out. This was followed by a series of talks and breakout sessions led by summiters and mentors, which were really engaging.
I attended a few of the breakouts, including one by Michael Gibson on Saturday about risk and uncertainty (how fitting). Gibson’s thought experiments had attendees figuring out why they were not willing to take risk in certain situations when, mathematically, the risk for both situations was the same. Danielle Strachman, Program Director of Thiel Foundation, held a session themed on lack of women in STEM. On attending the session, I heard opinions on why the situation exists and I gave some of my own views on this issue. Two of my summiter friends, Diwank Tomer and Alex Berger laid special emphasis on this issue and did a great job by creating a mascot for the cause called Grumpy Bear. Grumpy is a friendly bear who believes in balance and harmony. She wants more women to participate in the tech world. After all, true strength lies in a diversity of talent & opinion.
Grumpy Bear says bring more women to STEM!
The summit was followed by dinner at NYU Law School, a 5 minute walk from the summit venue, which gave the attendees more time to interact and mix with each other over some delicious finger foods.
By the end of Day 1, out of many things I learned and experienced, one thing stood out the most – The summit shows you there are people smarter than you. To sum it up, I shall quote Julien:
“Surround yourselves with people who make you feel like ‘oh I’m garbage’, and the next day, you know that’s the next level you want to achieve”. – Julien Smith
The second bay began with a rejuvenating brunch at Greenspaces followed by Unconference sessions back in 92Y. I got a chance to spend some one on one time with Thiel Fellows and learned a lot about their amazing experiences as fellows. Later on, in one of the sessions, I listened to Tessa Zimmerman explain her ASSET model (Tessa backwards) and was in awe of the self awareness and drive she possessed.
The closing ceremony began with Alex Peake’s speech.
“When you are a part of this group, you are 50 years ahead of this time. But when you walk out of 92y TriBeCa, you are still in 2012 in a post disaster situation.”-Alex Peake
This was followed by a really moving speech by Jim O’Niel.
“If you learned something this week that surprised you, raise your hand” – Jim O’Niel
…And everyone present raised his or her hand in unison. He ended his speech with the words,
“You don’t need a degree to start a business and you don’t need a degree to change the world. “
I remember listening to Jim using exactly the same words to end his speech in conclusion of the last Thiel Summit in San Francisco, 5 months ago. During those days, I was still in school. But now that I have stopped out of school, in order to work on my ideas full time, I agree more and more with his words every passing day.
Since I had 2 more days to spend in NY before I flew out, I decided to spend some time sightseeing with my housemate, Patrick Stoddart. Walking down 5th avenue while thinking of new ideas is probably the best way to spend an evening in NY. On Monday night, I was invited by Alex Peake to attend a dinner near Time Square with David E. Weekly, co-founder of Hacker Dojo. We had a fun time interacting with David. Alex Peake told me how how much he needed something like the Thiel fellowship when he was of my age. Later that night, I went to Thiel Foundation-Columbia roadshow event where fellowship enthusiasts from Columbia University got a chance to interact with some of the fellows. I found myself answering many tough questions to mentors and other attendees about my project. The entire process helped me understand what I need to do next to improvise on some elements of my project(s). This is what makes the summit awesome – It just didn’t consist of people to make you feel good about your idea and bombard you with false acclaims, but people who gave constructive criticism, helping you know where you stand in the grand scheme of things and where you are lacking behind.
“Find people who give you constructive criticism [...] be authentic even if it is hard.”
-Danielle Strachman, Program Director, The Thiel Foundation
This was my second Under 20 Summit. The first summit was held in San Francisco on July 14-15 and was a huge success. I personally had a great time attending the breakout sessions and mixing with other fellowship enthusiasts. In fact, I serendipitously met one of the mentors at the SF summit who has helped me a lot with one of my projects. At the end of the day, summits like these are for such serendipitous events leading to meeting people, who in turn, turn out to be lifelong connections. Consider your life to be a running movie. You can only make your movie exciting if you meet the characters who’ll help you make the plot adventurous. The summit has helped me make my plot adventurous and a fun-filled experience. The next Under 20 Summit will be held in 6 months from now. If you’re a young entrepreneur interested in meeting like minded-people, I highly encourage you to come to the future summits regardless of whether or not you are applying to the fellowship.
You can find more information about Thiel Fellowship here.
Maria Chàvez, one of the summit attendees has guest blogged on AliveNDead. Check out her awesome post here!