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Up, Up, and Away!

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Earlier that same day, I see Collete sitting in the school’s dining room, looking through old photos of herself in her racing uniform.

“I’m sending these to a V.C. who spoke here the other day,” she says. “He’s a driver, too.”

After three weeks, the mystique she felt on the first day, when Tim Draper tossed her his Tesla keys, hasn’t subsided. She’s been oohing and ahhing her way through lectures, bonding with her classmates, and eagerly trying to rack up activity-­participation points for her team. Several weeks in, she Instagrammed a photo from a visit to Google’s headquarters. The caption read: “Helloooo@Google—Might as well be the #whitehouse.”

By now, Draper U. students have heard from dozens of entrepreneurs and investors, and most of them have gotten business ideas of their own. Collete is still hopeful that her start-up idea—an educational program to get more young girls studying science and math—will pan out. But most of her classmates have gone for-profit. Some are dreaming about secondhand-clothing exchanges, others are plotting food trucks, a few have signed up to work on a group-messaging platform called LivelyFeed that was started by a Draper student named Ryan. Others remain aimless but motivated.

“There are a couple of people here who, it’s like, I know you don’t have a company, but can I buy stock in you?,” Collete’s roommate, a cheery redhead named McKenna Walsh, tells me.

The two soon leave to join the other students gathered in the classroom. After reciting their daily oath, the class is treated to a presentation by a young French entrepreneur whose company sells a wireless locking device for corporate vehicle fleets. In a thick accent, the entrepreneur details all the yooge possibilities and eemportant innovations that will arise in the coming years, as technological solutions to the world’s transportation problems come to the fore. As an example, he talks about using sailboats as a carbon-free alternative to large shipping vessels.

After the French lecturer finishes, the students go upstairs to their dorm rooms. Collete and McKenna invite me in. Theirs is a fairly standard dorm room, though Collete has taken the liberty of swapping out the standard-issue bed linens for pink satin sheets. On the desk, beside straightening irons and laptops, sits a massive stack of books—the same stack every Draper U. student was given on the first day of school. Among the assigned readings are Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, The Wall Street MBA, and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Perhaps because they’re being taught about the virtues of capitalism, most of the students now talk freely about money. I overhear discussions of Series A rounds, founder’s equity, and the process of finding angel investors. Increasingly, they’re thinking like businesspeople, rather than dreamers.

“A bunch of us have a bet among ourselves,” McKenna says. “The first one to make $100 million has to fly everyone else to Las Vegas for a party.”

Downstairs, Alex is dressed for the pool in Rainbow flip-flops and Oakleys with Croakies. He’s taking a dip before the next class session. I ask him what he’s taking away from Draper U. He shrugs.

“I don’t really know how it applies yet,” he says. “But it’s been great. Tim’s helping us accomplish our goals, and we’re helping him accomplish his.”

Alex tells me that the previous night, one Draper U. student brought his friend, a street hypnotist, to the dorm rooms for an impromptu performance in which he demonstrated his skills on a classmate.

“This girl put her shoulders on one chair and her feet on the other, like a plank,” he says. “The hypnotist told her to get stronger and stronger, and then he sat on her right in the middle. And it worked—she held him up.”

Hypnotism is a good metaphor for what’s happening at Draper U. Any experienced techie would tell you that there is often a gulf in Silicon Valley between the impossibly grand, world-changing ideas that tech entrepreneurs aspire to (“moonshots,” in industry parlance) and the reality of what gets funded. But moonshot talk serves an important function in the Valley’s ecosystem. By cloaking the mundane in the sublime, by making aspiring entrepreneurs feel that they, too, can change the world through an iPhone app, Draper is building up his students’ inner strength. And then, when, months or years later, a student’s start-up gets tested by a funding crunch or a critical mistake, he’ll think about his metaphorical superhero cape and bear the load.


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