Peter Thiel
Peter
Thiel

REUTERS/Jonathan
Ernst


The political tension in America’s tech capital is palpable.

Silicon Valley prides itself on being the home for the
contrarians, the disruptors, the people who want to see the world
be different. Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal and outspoken
libertarian, embodies the cherished Silicon Valley ethos more
than anyone else.

Yet somehow, Thiel’s support for Republican presidential
candidate Donald Trump, the ultimate political outsider, has made
Thiel a pariah and an open
target for public condemnation
in his hometown.

On Monday, Thiel gave a speech at the National Press Club to

justify why he’s voting for Trump
, whose vows to curb
immigration and to tear up free trade deals have made him deeply
unpopular in the tech industry.

But even as many groups have lambasted Thiel and threatened to
sever ties with him, one group of techies is largely standing by
Thiel: the recipients of the Thiel fellowship, a program
that gives budding entrepreneurs a $100,000 check if they drop
out of school and pursue their startup dreams.

Diwank Singh Tomer, a 2013 fellowship recipient, said he’s been
fielding a lot of questions from friends in the Bay Area about
his ties to Thiel, although not as much as from people back home
in India.

“Being an immigrant, I do not agree with the opinions and beliefs
of Donald Trump. And for the same reason, I disfavor Peter
Thiel’s support for him,” Tomer told Business Insider in an
email. “However, this does not change my opinion regarding the
Thiel fellowship in any manner. The fellowship has provided
brilliant opportunities to people like me.”

Business Insider sent over 95 emails to the Thiel fellows we
could find contact information for. Of those, only a handful
responded, and many declined to comment given the possible
repercussions. The Thiel Foundation also declined to comment.

Last year, more than 6,000 people applied for 26 fellowship
slots. In the last five years, the Thiel fellowship has been
awarded to over 120 people, all ages 22 and below.

Mountains of student debt

It’s not yet clear if Thiel’s support for Trump will increase or
decrease the number of applications for this year’s batch of
fellowship slots. But for the aspiring tech moguls who have
already bought into Thiel’s business vision, the 49-year-old’s
political views are not a deal breaker.

Despite having multiple degrees, Thiel launched the fellowship in
2011 to offer an alternate path than the traditional education
system. The $100,000 grants let fellows drop out or pause their
education for two years to pursue their ideas. Some, like James
Proud, have already sold a company and started another. Others
have created a startup or two before returning to school to
finish their degrees.

The rising mountains of student debt is one reason Thiel started
the fellowship program — and it’s one of the marquee reasons he
supports Trump. During his speech on Monday, Thiel said he’s
voting for Trump partly because millennials are “stuck” in a
“broken system.”

“Our youngest citizens may not have huge medical bills, but their
college tuition keeps on increasing faster than the rate of
inflation, adding more every year to our $1.3 trillion-dollar
mountain of student debt,” Thiel said. “America has become the
only country where students take on loans they can never escape,
not even by declaring bankruptcy. Stuck in this broken system,
millennials are the first generation who expect their own lives
to be worse than the lives of their parents.”

Living in the echo chamber

It’s a message that has stuck a chord with a lot of millennials.

William LeGate, a 2013 Thiel fellow, found that only some of his
friends on the West Coast really questioned Thiel’s ties to
Trump. In his hometown of Atlanta, no one has asked his opinion
of it, he said. Instead, some friends have asked about one of his
investors’ support of Hillary Clinton.

“It’s easy to live in Silicon Valley’s echo chamber and vilify
Trump supporters just as it’s easy to live in red states and
disparage liberals,” LeGate told Business Insider.

It’s easy to live in Silicon Valley’s echo chamber and vilify
Trump supporters just as it’s easy to live in red states and
disparage liberals.

“Peter has always been a contrarian, vocal about his views no
matter how popular or unpopular they may be. Who he supports
politically doesn’t change the fact that there’s currently over
$1 trillion in student loan debt in the US and growing at a rate
of nearly $3,000 per second, nor does it discredit the
significant resources he donates to philanthropic causes, of
which, the Thiel fellowship is only one,” LeGate said in an
email.

“I personally don’t agree with all his views, but I believe it’s
disparaging to half the country to suggest that supporting a
major-party candidate in the US could in some way tarnish the
prestige of the fellowship or Peter’s other philanthropic work.”

His philanthropy, though, may be shielded from Silicon Valley’s
spears of disgust. While some venture capitalists
have already sworn off
working with Thiel or Y Combinator, at
which he is an adviser, Tomer said he would have applied for the
fellowship even knowing of Thiel’s support of Trump today.

“Again, Peter Thiel’s support and funding of the Gawker lawsuit
would have kept my application to the fellowship undeterred,”
Tomer said. “There are many people working behind the fellowship
program, and it will be absurd of me to discredit their efforts
and hard work because of the actions of Peter Thiel.”