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Draper University

School of the Future Challenges Limitations


School of the Future Challenges Limitations


Why has the Korean government sent students to Silicon Valley entrepreneurial schools? How have graduates of one such school produced 70 startup ventures in just two years?



School of the Future Challenges Limitations

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 561 )

How does one drop an egg from eight stories high without breaking it? This is the kind of challenge Draper University of Heroes, located outside San Francisco in San Mateo, California, assigns its students to solve.

One student placed the egg inside grain, which was encased in a paper cup. Another made a parachute for the egg. Some broke, whilst others landed perfectly intact.

University founder and president, Tim Draper, is the architect behind his school's curriculum. He requires students to complete tasks in the shortest time possible with the fewest resources. He comes up with all sorts of assignments, like having to sell two bicycles in one afternoon, and getting on a train and coaxing the life story out of the passenger next to you within an hour… Courses like these, reminiscent of adventure challenges, are what define and distinguish Draper University, founded in 2012. In less than two years, the institution has attracted students from all around the United States and 40 countries worldwide.

A Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Mr. Draper complements degrees from Stanford and Harvard with a keen entrepreneurial sense, which led him to become an early investor in Hotmail, Baidu and Tesla, among other ventures. Now 56, he is putting his wealth and ideas into education from out of two San Mateo hotel buildings he purchased off posh Third Avenue and retrofit into his offbeat, innovative school.

Entering the school, it's easy to think you've happened on a scene from Star Wars or The Avengers. With high ceilings and bold colors, the reception desk is made from a sports car cut in half. And the large round table Draper sits at for our interview was fashioned from an airplane engine. Everything here is fresh and charged with creativity.

Teaching Students to "Fail and Fail Again"

Sporting bushy eyebrows and packing a resonant voice, Draper radiates energy and excitement. Asked why he founded Draper University of Heroes, he replies, "Don't you think that we're bored? We're teaching the same thing."

A graduate of the prestigious Ivy League, he remarks, "Our education has lost something important…We want them to make mistakes, try stuff, to fail and fail again, just like the credo, 'fail and fail again until you succeed.'"

Filled with surprise at every turn, the design and environment break the mold for educational institutions.

The highly unorthodox university features immersive short courses of six to eight weeks, offered to a class of 40 students normally ranging in age from 18 to 28. Working in teams of five or six, students are tossed into an entrepreneurial environment infused with an adventurous spirit.

Ryan Kyung Rok Moon is a 31 year-old student from Korea and the founder of Newsy Stock, a stock analysis service. Although he is slightly older than the normal age the school accepts for admission, he fought hard to win acceptance.

Korea's government has sent large numbers of students abroad over the last two years to study entrepreneurship, and Moon is one of the participants in his country's KISED (Korea Institute of Startup and Entrepreneurship Development) program, which dispatched 15 teams to four Silicon Valley institutes in 2014, including Draper. The program aspires for young people to work toward "customized entrepreneurship 3.0."

At the time of our late October interview, although Moon had been in the program for just a month, he said that he had gone from being bashful about speaking English to actively making friends and offering help. Seemingly always recording goings on with his GoPro, his images bridging the distance among students, his classmates have dubbed him "Mr. Video."

"I've really changed a lot, and now I can go up and talk to strangers anytime," he gushes. Moon hopes to strike success in Silicon Valley.

The two-month course features talks by 50 noted entrepreneurs, including Zappos founder Tony Hsieh and renowned Stanford professor Tina Seelig. Beyond the entreprene urial spirit, Draper wants students to dare to take risks and embrace the unknown. "There is no such thing as a sure future these days. This is not a time to think about a sense of security," Draper says, his voice reaching a crescendo for emphasis. He is on a quest for none other than the heroes to forge the future.

Can courage and being adventurous be taught?

Draper University has a weekly theme, under which they teach students entrepreneurial ideas and processes, along with such novel technologies and tools as 3D printing and Bitcoin. However, beyond hard knowledge the school spends the bulk of the time working on the students' soft power.

No "Comfort Zone" Exists

This is how a typical day starts at Draper University of Heroes. At 9:30, Tim Draper invites a student to lead everyone in reciting the school's oath. Hand on heart, they recite it aloud to themselves and their friends: "I will promote freedom at all costs. I will do everything in my power to drive, build and pursue progress and change. My brand, my network and my reputation are paramount…" The Superhero Oath, as it is known here, concludes appropriately with the words, "I will fail and fail again until I succeed."

Students are encouraged to make graffiti and play extreme sports to force out their courage and imagination.

Wasting little time after the recitation, Draper starts assigning tasks. Today he gets right to it, telling students, "Within four hours, using the Classifieds section of the newspaper, you will find a job in the San Francisco area." His words stun them.

Today is not the first time this assignment has been given. Previous graduates distinguished themselves brilliantly, with 95 percent realizing the objective, according to Draper. "Sometimes they're sweeping up the floors of a gay bar, but they're getting it done. Some are flipping burgers in McDonald's, and one guy got a job on Twitter," he says. This just goes to show that nothing is impossible as long as you are focused and bold.

The students build confidence from the assignments, after which teachers encourage them to come up with start-up plans. They tell the students to dispel their fears. After all, the worst thing that can happen is you go out and get a job, never forgetting that you went out and landed one in four hours.

The school also tests students' physical limits with swimming, combat, Go Kart racing, and even a full-blown Survival Week, during which students leave behind mobile phones and computers to trek through harsh rivers and hillsides, and after reaching their goal in a state of exhaustion are asked to take one step further. These unforgettable experiences show the students their potential under high-stress situations.

Zhao Hua, a 24-year-old student from China, applied to Draper on her own volition after completing a graduate degree at Kings College in London. For her, every day has a unique set of challenges. "I'm always open, receiving all sorts of information, and going out of my comfort zone nearly every day," she remarks during a break from practicing with classmates for a public flash mob dance performance. Right after arriving here, she was asked to write 101 of her dreams on the wall.

World-changing Heroes

Whether challenged mentally, physically, or in terms of know-how, Draper believes that having come through their training, "students coming to a crossroads won't be afraid of decision-making and action, but will think of their dreams and summon courage. They will know what to decide." For their final class the school arranges for the students to make a brief pitch to a group of entrepreneurs, and sometimes Draper's family invests in a team they like. Over the last two years Draper University has trained 240 "heroes," who have gone on to create 70 new ventures, a third of which have secured funding.

This is a school where young people can take risks and boldly innovate in a safe context. There are no winners or losers, and as long as you are willing to give it a try you could become a world-changing hero.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman