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Up, Up, and Away!


Draper, a third-generation venture capitalist, is a true believer in Silicon Valley’s greatness. He speaks in the earnest patois of the sector (disrupt, innovate, and dream would be in 36-point type in his personal word cloud), and a few of the investments that have earned him his fortune have been equally lofty; he remains a backer of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk’s electric-car and space-exploration outfits. His firm made millions investing in Skype and Hotmail, two companies that may not have launched rockets but nevertheless became very profitable household names. Like any savvy investor, Draper’s portfolio contains a mixture of these companies—the ones that represent true innovation—and companies with more modest aims, ones that either piggyback on existing ideas and execute them in a slightly better way or that simply capitalize on consumers’ itchy-fingered desire for novelty. His recent investments include an ad-sales platform, a suite of “intelligent website marketing products,” a laser-tag iPhone game, and Bang With Friends, an app that helps Facebook users find partners for casual sex.

Draper decided to start his own school a few years ago, believing that what young people needed wasn’t practical start-up skills, which other schools already did a good job of teaching, so much as the will to be great and the courage to try their hand at riskier ventures. They would come in scared and curious and leave as courageous converts. “We want to be that frivolous university that can think about the future,” Draper says. “No serious university would teach this stuff.”

Draper’s school is typical of Silicon Valley writ large, in that thick layers of do-gooder idealism overlay the core capitalistic motives. During the first day of classes, I barely hear anyone at Draper U. mention money or the possibility of wringing Zuckerberg-like riches out of a tech start-up. Mostly, students speak about the value of Draper’s “network” and the vague “opportunity sets” that will result from getting to know so many prominent techies. Rather than thinking of this as an M.B.A. lite, or a computer-science boot camp, they view it as an eight-week lesson in dreaming big and thinking futuristically—essentially space camp without the rockets.

“I want these guys to be active performers in life,” Draper says. “If they’re bored in a classroom, they’re not maximizing their lives.”

A few weeks into the semester, I join the class for an afternoon of go-kart racing. After a morning lecture, lunch, and some time by the pool, students pack into a charter bus and head to a nearby indoor track, where they’re outfitted with racing suits and sleek helmets.

Alex Pulido is playfully trash-talking his classmates before the race. He’s a 24-year-old who played water polo and majored in urban studies at Stanford, then spent a couple of years doing freelance photography and other odd jobs before deciding to enroll at Draper U. He told me, one morning, that he and a group of classmates were out late drinking the night before. I asked if any of his classmates have hooked up. He said that nobody had, to his knowledge, which isn’t completely surprising, considering the dearth of females (seven women to 33 men).

“Pretty bad ratio, huh?” he said.

When it comes time to suit up for go-karting, I sidle up next to Scott Freschet. A scruffy-faced 28-year-old, Scott quit his job as a product manager at Yahoo a year ago out of restlessness and has since been living as a ski bum in Salt Lake City while his fiancée completes her residency. His family lives in San Mateo. His dad had heard about Draper U. and told Scott, who decided it might be the place to learn how to shed his worker-bee past and do something more individualistic. But since he arrived, he’s found himself immersed in an agenda of summer-camp games and “personal branding” workshops, in which even the most lowbrow elements are covered with a gloss of earnest grandeur. (Earlier that day, I watched Draper change the agenda line for a planned activity, a gathering of Draper U. students and his daughter’s college friends, from “mixer with sorority” to “hero-a-thon.”)

“The team-building stuff is really incredible and valuable for a chunk of the people,” Scott says. “But I think people with more experience have learned that elsewhere.”

The go-kart grand prix is about to start, and Scott, like everyone else, has squeezed himself into a onesie in preparation to zoom around the track. The competition will be extra fierce, because Draper announced earlier that everyone who finished ahead of Collete, the race-car driver, would earn a bonus point for their team. So, shelving his skepticism, Scott chooses his racing nickname, buckles up, and waits for the checkered flag.


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