Imagine that you’re 19 years old and you’ve been offered $100,000 to drop out of college and build the tech start-up of your dreams. For the 20 students who win a Thiel Fellowship each year, with funding and mentoring provided by PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, this is reality. In Valley of the Gods, Wall Street Journal reporter Alexandra Wolfe (daughter of writer Tom Wolfe) profiles several members of the 2011 class of Thiel fellows, among them John Burnham, who aims to mine asteroids for platinum and gold; Laura Deming, who’s focused on extending human longevity; and Paul Gu, who wants to create a new method for loaning money.
Wolfe follows this first class of Thiel fellows from the time when they’re still finalists, waiting to learn if they’ve won an award and undecided as to whether to put off college. She highlights their living spaces (like the communal house depicted in The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg and friends lived and worked before Facebook was the world’s highest-valued company), their social lives and their work struggles. Launching a successful tech start-up is incredibly difficult, even with a good idea, an unusual level of intelligence and monetary support, and Wolfe conveys the young entrepreneurs’ ups and downs well.
These stories are interspersed with a more general profile of Silicon Valley, its history, its connection to Stanford University and its oddities, like Cougar Night at the Rosewood Hotel, where “older” women hit on young techies. These asides make for fascinating reading, but they take us away from the Thiel Fellows and their struggles, so we care less about them than we otherwise might have. Still, readers seeking an inside view of this high-tech mecca will certainly find it in Valley of the Gods.