The University of Heroes Trains Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Even by Silicon Valley standards, venture capitalist Tim Draper is an oddball. He co-owns a luxury resort in Tanzania, helped produce a Nickelodeon mockumentary series about his sister’s kids, and ends speeches by singing a five-minute ode to entrepreneurs called The Riskmaster. His latest passion is Draper University of Heroes, where students aged 18 to 26 discuss the future instead of history, play volleyball with two balls, and learn survival skills that include suturing and weapons training. Set to open in April, the program is a $7,500, eight-week crash course in entrepreneurship. “Other schools out there are focused on getting an A, which means don’t make any mistakes,” Draper says. “Our school was created to fail and fail big and succeed and succeed big.”
A typical University of Heroes morning will begin with a lecture from a well-known speaker. Zappos Chief Executive Officer Tony Hsieh and Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors and CEO of SpaceX, spoke during a pilot class Draper ran last year. The rest of the day will mix courses on urban survival training, finance, and sales as well as viral marketing and idea generation. There will be yoga, go-karting, and riflery. The Heroes version of baseball more closely resembles Calvinball from Calvin and Hobbes—players may run the wrong way around the bases or change positions after every pitch. And, yes, there will be karaoke.
Draper, 54, whose father and grandfather were also venture capitalists, has spent the past 28 years backing startups as founder and managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, whose funds have raised more than $7 billion since 1985. He bet early on Hotmail, Skype, Tesla, and Baidu, but his once top-echelon firm has missed many of the big social media winners in recent years.
Now he’s bet $20 million of his personal wealth on his school. Some of that went toward acquiring a campus—the vacant 90-room Benjamin Franklin Hotel in downtown San Mateo, Calif., and a former antiques store across the street. Draper plans to host quarterly sessions with up to 180 attendees each. He’s working with universities to help students get class credit, similar to a study-abroad program. Students who can’t afford the $7,500 tuition can promise Draper 2 percent of their income over the next 10 years, or they can propose another arrangement. For the term starting in April, he’s accepted two such proposals: A race-car driver will put the school’s logo, a shield, on her car during competitions, and two Egyptian students say they’ll write a book about the school in Arabic. “We’ve had some other offers that weren’t quite as good,” says Draper.
Christine Guibara, 27, a jewelry designer in Burlingame, Calif., took part in Draper’s 40-student pilot program last June. She says that though her business was already doing well, Heroes made her think bigger. She says she was inspired by a lecture by Ron Johnson, the J.C. Penney CEO who previously led Apple’s retail operation, and has begun talking to possible partners about starting what she calls a retail incubator, a common sales space for up-and-coming jewelry designers. Like every Heroes student, she finished her program with a two-minute pitch to a panel of real investors. By that time, she says, she’d overcome her fear of public speaking through extensive pitch practice and other work. Camaraderie with her classmates also helped, she says: “Being uncomfortable almost every day and still looking forward to it makes you comfortable with the unknown.”
Draper expects Heroes to at least break even, and hopes alumni give Draper Fisher Jurvetson an early chance to invest in their projects. Draper says he expects to invest between $300,000 and $500,000 of his own money into a $4 million round of financing for nVision Medical, a devices company founded by Surbhi Sarna, 27, who attended the Heroes pilot program last year. Sarna says Heroes inspired her to broaden the company’s focus from female infertility to early detection of ovarian cancer as well. Within about two years, she hopes to have an early detection device on the path to approval from the Food and Drug Administration. That’s the kind of risk Draper sings about on stage. As he says in his song: The riskmaster “skates on the edge of disaster.”