Photographs by Cody Pickens
It’s just after breakfast, and the superheroes are gathering in a cavernous white-walled room amid a sea of brightly colored beanbag chairs. Once assembled, they place their hands over their hearts, face the portraits of Thomas Edison and Bill Gates hung high on the wall, and begin reciting their daily oath.
“I will promote freedom at all costs!” says Tim Draper, a venture capitalist with a microphone slung over his ear and a “Save the Children” tie brightening up his suit.
“I will promote freedom at all costs!” the heroes echo back.
“I will do everything in my power to drive, build, and pursue progress and change!” Draper calls out.
“I will do everything in my power to drive, build, and pursue progress and change!” they repeat.
“My brand, my network, and my reputation are paramount!”
“My brand, my network, and my reputation are paramount!”
These 40 young dreamers are the inaugural class of the Draper University of Heroes, Silicon Valley’s newest and most unconventional boarding school for aspiring tech moguls, located in San Mateo, California, just up Route 101 from Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters. Most of the students are in their early-to-mid-twenties, and their backgrounds are a hodgepodge. There’s a Swiss wealth manager, a Stanford Ph.D., a former professional football player, and handfuls of directionless college graduates for whom Silicon Valley has the same mystique that Hollywood or New York holds for others. For the next eight weeks, they’ll apprentice at Draper’s feet, trying to pick up the tech world’s own brand of magical thinking.
In the process, they’ll be subjected to a fair amount of Draper’s zany-uncle humor. “A little wiggle and you’re good!” he says, miming a chicken dance as he shows the students how to choreograph part of their oath.
Draper, a tall, broad-shouldered bruiser with dark Cro-Magnon eyebrows and a mussed head of hair, finishes the oath and begins dividing the students into the teams they’ll stay on for the rest of the session. There are the Wonders, Titans, Lightning, Tornados, Angels, Magic, Lanterns, Phoenix, and Blizzard, and while it’s not quite clear what the teams are competing for, the students all titter at the idea of Hogwarts-style tribalism. Draper then asks that they introduce themselves with tweet-length autobiographies.
Collete Davis stands up. A petite Floridian, she came here after dropping out of Embry-Riddle, an engineering school. Her goal is to one day drive for IndyCar, and she wants to find a way to fuse her racing career with an entrepreneurial venture of some sort. Tim Draper has allowed her to attend for free in exchange for putting a Draper U. decal on her racing car and suit. After she gives her Twitter autobiography (“Hashtag American, racing driver, IndyCar, STEM education, creativity, family, passion”), she adds an aspiration from her personal bucket list. “You know that rap song ‘Wake Up in a New Bugatti’?” she says. “Well, because of where we’re at, I’d rather wake up in a Tesla!”
Draper lets out a guffaw, then pulls something metallic out of his pants pocket and tosses it across the room to Collete, whose eyes bulge as she sees what she’s been given: the keys to Draper’s Model S.
“Go ahead—take it for a spin,” he says. “Three blocks down that way.”
In the public imagination, Silicon Valley is all moments like these—luck and lucre falling out of clear California skies. But the day-to-day reality of being young in tech is often less glamorous. Even the hottest Internet companies have armies of junior grunts cleaning up code and doing corporate sales—the digital-age equivalent of scouting locations as a movie production assistant or making Excel spreadsheets as a junior Wall Street banker, but the magic of Silicon Valley wraps the sector—banal desk jobs and bold solo projects alike—in the banner of revolution. You feel special, even if you’re just answering the phone.
Draper University, which officially launched this spring, bills itself as a “school for innovators,” but it’s really an eight-week infomercial for the culture of Silicon Valley. Its goal is to infect students with the exuberance of tech and make them brave enough to leave a traditional career path for a stint in start-up land. Unlike at most tech incubators, you don’t have to have a company to enroll at Draper U. You don’t even have to have an idea for one. You just have to cough up the $9,500 tuition or, alternatively, pledge a small percent of your income for the next ten years. (So far, only one person has taken Draper up on the latter.)
Students at Draper are given two days of coding lessons and some elementary Excel practice, but most of what they’ll learn will be soft skills. Instead of teaching hard-core classes in Python and C++, Draper offers a cornucopia of team-building activities, which range from cooking and yoga classes to wilderness training and karaoke. At the end of the session, each student will be a “C.A.,” which stands for “change agent.” They’ll also be given two minutes to pitch a panel of investors on their business ideas. Like tech incubators Y-Combinator and TechStars, which are rewarded for their early support of start-ups with a fraction of future earnings, Draper stands to profit from any successes that sprout from the program. Draper’s son, Adam, has set up a tech accelerator, Boost VC, across the street from the school, where students can apply to polish their idea. When it’s ready for the big leagues, one of Draper’s venture-capital firms will be there, ready to pick up the company for funding. “It all helps itself,” he says. “These guys will all have leads for me.”