A quarter century after his time as an active ISI student at Stanford University, Peter Thiel has made the most of the intellectual courage and leadership skills he displayed as an undergraduate.
Today he is best known as one of America’s leading entrepreneurs and investors. His track record is stunning: Cofounder and CEO of PayPal, a company he sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. The first outside investor in Facebook, where he still serves on the board. Cofounder and chairman of Palantir Technologies, a data analytics company that makes tools for national security, law enforcement, and global finance. Cofounder of Founders Fund, which has invested in some of the world’s leading tech companies, including SpaceX, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Yelp, and Spotify.
But Peter Thiel is not only an entrepreneur. Far from it. He is a generous and innovative philanthropist. He is the author of two books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. And he is, in the words of Fortune magazine, “perhaps America’s leading public intellectual today.”
Perhaps his most distinctive characteristics are his contrarian thinking and his fearlessness in confronting political correctness—both on full display during his days as an ISI student leader.
In 1987, as a sophomore in college, he cofounded the Stanford Review, an independent student newspaper that joined ISI’s Collegiate Network. Thiel saw that the university desperately needed an alternative to its stifling liberal orthodoxy.
That January, Jesse Jackson had led hundreds of students and faculty in protesting Stanford’s required Western Culture course. “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” the protesters chanted. Stanford soon gutted its core curriculum and caved to the ceaseless demands for “diversity,” but Thiel and the Stanford Review were there to push back. The paper provided well-reasoned opposing views and exposed the intolerance of so many multiculturalists.
Thiel assembled an incredible roster of contributors for the Collegiate Network publication. In fact, several key members of the Stanford Review editorial team went on to join Thiel at PayPal. As the New York Times recently reported, Thiel and the others “transformed themselves into a close-knit network of technology entrepreneurs—innovators who created billion-dollar business after billion-dollar business, using the ideas, ethos, and group bonds they had honed at the Stanford Review.”
Thiel has written that the Collegiate Network paper “was my first entrepreneurial venture,” adding that he received invaluable preparation for his future career by “managing a group of talented (and strong-minded) people.”
He recalls the importance of the support he received from ISI’s Collegiate Network. “It’s really tough to be contrarian just by yourself,” he says. “It’s always good to know that you’re not completely isolated.” Joining the Collegiate Network showed him exactly that. “When I started the Stanford Review back in 1987, we received this invitation to go to D.C. [for the Collegiate Network Editors Conference]. We met with all the other editors of these college newspapers, and we realized that we were not totally on our own.” Belonging to a national network of independent student newspapers “gave us a lot of stamina in the years to come as we went through the debates over Western culture and political correctness and campus speech codes.”
Maintaining his ISI connection, Thiel speaks frequently at ISI events. In October 2014 he became the first ISI alumnus to deliver the keynote speech at the Institute’s annual Dinner for Western Civilization, and in the summer of 2015 he addressed ISI’s best young journalists at the Collegiate Network Editors Conference.