In a world of gender stereotypes, where women have to work harder to prove they have what it takes to run a business, let alone a tech startup, the numbers are not at all in their favor. They create a mere 3 percent of tech startups, hold only 4 percent of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies, and get less than 5 percent of VC funding. And yet, more young women with some of the brightest minds are stepping up to the plate. They are eager to make a reality out of their vision and shape as many lives as possible if given the opportunity. Thiel Fellowship offers such an opportunity. Every year, 20 people under 20 years old are selected to receive $100,000 and mentorship to build a business, on one condition: to drop out of school for the duration of the two-year program.
Stacey Ferreira, Olenka Polak, and Lucy Guo are only three of the Thiel Fellows who are successfully building businesses in the tech world. Each of them shared what the Fellowship means to them and how it influenced their lives.
Stacey Ferreira, 24, Co-founder and CEO of Forge
Ferreira started her first business at 18 when, along with her brother Scott, she co-founded MySocialCloud, an online password storage, and management solution.
Good timing and luck led her one day to read one of Sir Richard Branson’s tweets, in which he was inviting people to meet him in Miami for cocktails, in exchange for a $2,000 donation to his charity, Free the Children.
She responded to the tweet right away. Next step was borrowing the money from her father on the condition to return it in three months. Two days later, the siblings were in Miami discussing MySocialCloud with Branson.
Not too long after that, Ferreira raised $1.2 million from Branson, who became her mentor, Alex Welch, and Jerry Murdock.
MySocialCloud was acquired by Reputation.com in 2013.
Meanwhile, Ferreira co-authored a book called 2 Billion Under 20: How Millennials are Breaking Down Age Barriers and Changing the World, which was published by St. Martin’s Press in the summer of 2015.
She dropped out of NYU’s Gallatin School to accept a Thiel Fellowship in 2015 and began working on Forge as part of the Fellowship.
“When you think of ‘getting an education,’ you’re inclined to picture a classroom, pieces of paper and a teacher in the front of the room. One of the many things the Fellowship has taught me is that real education happens when you respect other people and listen to their point of view with a mind that is open to the possibility of change,” said Ferreira.
Forge is an on-demand labor marketplace that allows individuals to select their work hours at participating retailers and restaurants in their geographical area.
When she started building Forge, she teamed up with her brother yet again and was joined by two other co-founders, Lloyd Jones and Talulah Riley.
“As it relates to business, the Fellowship is a constant reminder that businesses are not built in a bubble; they’re built by a select group of people who take action towards a common dream. Finding the right people to build that dream with and receive an education from is a vital part of living a fulfilled life,” Ferreira added.
In January 2016, Forge team raised $1.5M from respected VC firms and angel investors, to enable both the launch of its new app and beta testing with several national and international QSR concepts in the second quarter of this year, including Sizzling Platter, a franchisee of Dunkin Donuts, Little Caesar’s, and others.
Ferreira is one of the young women featured in the documentary She Started It, a film that explores the struggles of women tech entrepreneurs.
She was selected as a Forbes 30 Under 30 changing the face of retail and is also a speaker for the US State Department on entrepreneurship.
Olenka Polak, 22, Co-founder and CEO of myLingo
The first-generation American daughter of Polish immigrant parents, Polak went to Harvard in 2011 and started fleshing out the myLingo idea when she was entering her sophomore year. Her concept won the 2013 Harvard Innovation Challenge, and the further collaboration with Harvard Innovation Lab offered her a lot of resources and support.
She co-founded the company with her older brother Adam, a Johns Hopkins graduate who was working as a chemical engineer in Louisiana at the time when myLingo concept blossomed. Although they didn’t have any technical background, that didn’t stop them. The idea for creating myLingo was inspired by their Polish-speaking parents, out of the frustration that they couldn’t properly enjoy going to the movies together as a family because of the existing language barriers.
myLingo is a mobile app that allows non-English-speaking people to watch Hollywood movies in the theater in their own language, using a smartphone and headphones. Advanced audio recognition technology ensures a perfectly synchronized studio-quality dub, which eliminates the inconvenience of subtitles.
The research process was a laborious one. Polak had to learn everything from starting and running a business to looking at how the audio track of a movie could be distributed onto a smartphone platform, and whether that would make sense.
As she went through the process of building her business, Polak found a tremendous and constant support in her mentor Zoe Barry, the founder, and CEO of ZappRx, a venture-backed digital healthcare startup.
In its early stages, my Lingo was bootstrapped, but Polak managed to raise $2.1 million in funding, built relationships and closed deals with three major Hollywood studios while successfully deploying beta and commercial test programs.
She eventually left Harvard to pursue myLingo full time in 2013. One year later, she was named one of Forbes 30 under 30 in Media, and in 2015 became a Thiel Fellow. The extent to which the Thiel Fellowship changed her life perspective was massive. “My view shifted from ‘what I’ll do with my life this decade’ to ‘what will I do for the world in this life,’” said Polak.
Lucy Guo, 21, Co-founder of Scale
By far the most tech savvy in the bunch, Guo was born in Silicon Valley and grew up being exposed to technology from a young age. She learned to program in second grade and has been creating websites since sixth grade.
In her senior year in high school, she began to get involved in the tech community, went to Rainbow Mansion and got referred to the Thiel Foundation Summit.
She went to Carnegie Mellon where she double-majored in computer science and human-computer interactions.
She dropped out of college in her senior year when she earned her 2014 Thiel Fellowship. “The Thiel Fellowship gave me an opportunity. I was able to drop out and pursue my dreams earlier than I would have. On top of that, the community has been phenomenal. It’s a group of young founders who understand you. They push you to your boundaries and help make you a more intellectual and mature human being,” said Guo.
She interned at Facebook and was a product designer at Quora and Snapchat. She enjoyed working in smaller companies because having a lot of ownership in a fast growing company was important to her as well as the people she would work with and the culture.
Guo’s new brainchild is called Scale, one of the startups that launched at Y Combinator S 16. She teamed up with former Quora software engineer Alexandr Wang as co-founder, who is also the company’s CEO.
Scale is the simplest API for repetitive human operation and, according to TechCrunch, is growing 40 percent week over week with over 50 percent gross margins. Scale enables developers to use an API for humans to complete repetitive tasks. Many startups use Scale for various tasks from content moderation to phone calling businesses.
The Thiel Fellowship is set to expand as of 2016 in terms of the number of individuals and age, by opening its doors to up to 30 fellows each year, 22-year-olds and younger. Hopefully, this will empower even more young women to apply for the program. “Each of the fellows charts a unique course, but together they have proven that young people can succeed by thinking for themselves instead of competing on old career tracks,” said Fellowship founder Peter Thiel.
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