Trapped In Peter Thiel’s Elevator: What We Learned

Trapped In Peter Thiel’s Elevator: What We Learned

Fifty-seven student entrepreneurs fly to San Francisco on billionaire Peter Thiel’s dime for the Thiel Fellowship Spring Summit. Eleven of them get trapped in an elevator together.

It’s fitting, right? We attended the Summit because our lives are defined by calculated risks. That’s how we got there. As founders of companies across various fields and media, we understand that, sometimes, life—especially life in business—likes to chuck a curveball your way when you least expect it.

After spending the morning at the Thiel Fellowship Spring Summit, a semi-annual conference sponsored by the Thiel Foundation, eleven of us piled into the elevator, expecting a smooth, painless trip to the bottom.

The pitcher winds up.

Shortly after takeoff, the elevator came to a jarring halt.

Strike one—curveball!

Of course, the first thought is, “This definitely isn’t good.” We’ve seen too many movies, ridden the Tower of Terror one too many times to not panic just a little in this situation. Ultimately, though, we came to trust the engineering and realized this was just a slight hiccup.

So, what now? Let’s talk.

What would’ve been a 15-second ride turned into the most unique networking opportunity of our lifetimes. The cast was a distinguished one: 10 other student entrepreneurs who were there to compete for the Thiel Fellowship, a two-year, $100,000 grant awarded to individuals under the age of 23.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you take a seat and chat with those of a like mind. An elevator pitch has never taken so long—and been so productive.

We taught ourselves a lesson.

The elevator represented a perfect microcosm of the business world as a whole. We flew to San Francisco for the opportunity of a lifetime, connecting with some of the world’s most lauded business leaders. These are people who live—and thrive—where we want to be. They’re the optimized, best-case-scenario versions of our future selves.

This, for a young entrepreneur, is the ultimate experience. The fellowship, of course, was in the corner of our minds, too. We wanted that funding and the exposure and support that came with it. But even without that payoff, the Summit proved worthwhile for the experience alone.

Throughout this two-day trek, we learned, we talked, and we enjoyed the ride.

Then the ride came to a literal screeching halt.

That’s our world. We’re scooting around, investing our time, energy, and youth into our projects and companies. This is our life. And it can all come to a full stop in an instance.

So, how will we react when our company’s elevator gets jammed?

If our experience at the conference is any indication, we’ll talk. We’ll smile and chat. We’ll wait it out and maximize the opportunity at hand.

Adversity alone can’t sink our ships. Poor management of that adversity can, though. What if I would’ve panicked and melted down in that elevator? Claustrophobia strikes, and I freak out. How will my peers remember me?

How will future funders remember me? In today’s age, these stories get around. Who wants to invest capital in a company whose CEO jumps overboard at the first sight of choppy waters?

When I think about the elevator, I think about the unique circumstances that brought about the situation. The sheer randomness of it is staggering. I almost wonder if Thiel rigged the pulleys to fail just to see how we’d react…

Given the lessons learned and the conversations we had, I’d say he’s pleased with the results.

And so are we. To have that opportunity to meet such genuine and remarkable people, people working toward similar goals and using creative and innovative means to get there, was truly special.

I believe some—or all—of us will go on to change the world. When they’re plastered across the Internet and taking over the talk of the town, we’ll be able to kick back and say, “I was trapped in an elevator with them once. Let me tell you about it…”

The cast involved had plenty to share: Here's who took a detour with us

  • Lexi Smith  

    Lexi (22), a senior at Harvard College, is creating Carewell, a platform to help caregivers take care of a loved one with dementia.   

  • Megan Grassell

    Megan (20) started Yellowberry to find a way to make age-appropriate bras for girls. She has deferred from Middlebury.

  • Samuel Poirier

    Sam (22) co-founded Retinad, the first ad network for VR, spearheading research in emotional and gaze tracking through VR headsets.

  • Sajan Sanghvi

    Sajan (20) studied at UCLA before founding Unison, a universal music platform dedicated to creating a more harmonious relationship between fans, artists, and their work.

  • Deepika Bodapati

    Deepika (21), a University of Southern California student, has developed a blood analytics tool that leverages the power of computer vision and machine learning to perform vital blood diagnostics within seconds.

  • Alex Zhu

    Alex (21) dropped out of MIT after two years to co-found AlphaSheets, where he now serves as the COO. AlphaSheets is a startup building cloud-based, programmable spreadsheets.  

  • Ivonna Dumanyan   

    Ivonna (22) is a Duke University student and founder of BioMetrix—a company pioneering a new generation of athletic injury prevention.

  • Roselynn Chang                                          

    Roselynn (20), a current sophomore at UC Berkeley, founded Dromie, the first on-demand nighttime security app using drone technology.

  • Christian Owens

    Christian (21) is the Founder and CEO of Paddle, a platform to help software companies better run their businesses and manage their customers. He lives in London and never went to college.


  • Luke Sophinos

    Luke (21) is the CEO & Founder of CourseKey, an education software company that allows Professors to leverage their students’ existing devices to turn their classrooms into tech-enabled learning environments. CourseKey is used every day by thousands of students at varying institutions across the country.

  • Joshua Browder 

    Joshua (19) is currently working on an A.I. chat bot that helps consumers with their legal issues (such as parking tickets and compensation for delayed flights). He is a student at Stanford.


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