Ben Yu was a freshman at Harvard last fall until he took a semester off. He is now one of twenty-four recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, a $100,000 grant that encourages people under 20 to drop out of school and pursue start-up companies. This summer, he will be moving to San Francisco work full-time on an internet price-comparison startup.
Harvard Political Review: How have you spent your last few months after leaving Harvard?
Ben Yu: When I first left Harvard my original plan was to travel abroad and really immerse myself in radically different cultures. I decided to head for East Africa, where I was promptly mugged my very first day of landing. I traveled through East Africa receiving a number of diseases and having other interesting adventures, such as being carried down in a stretcher from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Then I returned to California for an interview for a fellowship that I had applied to before I left, which was being funded by Peter Thiel. One thing led to the next and now I about to launch a price comparison store under the mentorship of Thiel and his network of entrepreneurs.
HPR: Your Thiel Fellow biography says that you’ll be using your fellowship money to “revolutionize price comparison on the web.” I use Yahoo Shopping for that. How is your plan different?
BY: Price comparison is an extremely competitive market and there are hundreds of platforms, but they all follow exactly the same approach, using a very sophisticated algorithm to scrape data from retailers and display it. But the lowest price is actually the result of an ever-changing sea of coupons and limited time offers. Our specific method of tackling this product is still under wraps but the primary idea is to create one site where you could type in what you’re looking for and instantly find it for the reliably lowest price.
HPR: Some people have argued that the Thiel Fellowship simply gives more money to young people who already have the privilege of wealth and intelligence. How do you answer those criticisms?
BY: At this point I think it hasn’t been Thiel’s primary purpose to encourage more equality or to drive forwards towards a fairer playing field for everyone. He’s simply trying to draw out what he sees to be talent and encourage those people to pursue what they might were they not pressured to take the conventional path down college. That being said, a number of applicants are by no means wealthy or from elite backgrounds.
HPR: You’ve now joined the illustrious ranks of Harvard dropouts like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. What made you want to leave Harvard?
BY: Really it comes down to the fact that I have an idea right now that I want to pursue. With that idea in mind there’s no reason that I see needing to wait four years before tackling it. There’s nothing I would be able to gain in four years that would necessarily give me an edge that I don’t already possess in the field. In my first semester at Harvard I felt rather constrained by the need to take general courses which weren’t pertinent to what I wanted to do.
HPR: What classes did you take in your first semester at Harvard?
BY: I took Math 1b, a Philosophy of Happiness freshman seminar, Life sciences, and Economics 10.
HPR: Are there any classes you wish you could have taken?
BY: The only thing I could think of is CS50. When I first began I was pretty daunted that I didn’t have knowledge of the field. So I first began by going through the CS50 lectures online—the experience is just as it would be in class. But from that point, no regrets. I think there’s a real dearth of classes that relate to entrepreneurship.
HPR: So you plan to come back?
BY: If I have time – if everything goes well I will be returning to Harvard. I have no idea what the future might hold.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Photo credit facebook.com and Ben Yu.