Young Man with a Vision Wins Thiel Fellowship

Charlie Stigler has a dream and the Thiel Fellowship he has just won is going to help make it come true. Stigler wants to create something that will improve the lives of people across the globe.
Charlie Stigler
“I want to make lasting, broad, and helpful change in the world,” he says. “I think that the best way for me to do that is to work at a high level on developing my own ideas, and this is exactly what the Thiel Fellowship is for. Just as a good school board superintendent can influence the lives of many more students than they would as a single teacher, I think I can improve lives more as a great entrepreneur than I could as a great software engineer working for somebody else.”
Stigler has just finished his freshman year at Columbia Engineering and is off to California with a no-strings-attached grant of $100,000 to leave college for a couple of years and focus on his work, research, and self-education. The Thiel Fellowship was established in 2010 by Paypal founder Peter Thiel who wanted to give young people a chance to bring their most ambitious ideas and projects to life. The fellows live in San Francisco where they are mentored by a network of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that, Thiel says, can’t be replicated in any classroom: “Thiel Fellows are changing the world one entrepreneurial venture at a time—rather than just studying, you’re doing.”
For the past year, Stigler has been working on a web startup named Zaption, with his father as one of his two partners. His near-term goal is to continue developing Zaption, a platform for creating online experiences from videos and interactive response elements. Its initial focus, says Stigler, will be on analyzing classroom video taken of teachers to gather feedback to improve their teaching effectiveness, and another major market could be coaching. With Zaption, users can create experiences, or “tours,” that incorporate videos, discussions, slides, and other elements. They can then send these tours out to be taken by a larger audience whose responses can be aggregated and viewed by the tour creator using a sophisticated analytics system. For instance, Stigler explains, the tour creator might see a list of responses to a question or a graph of where user interest was highest and know that that could be a good area to target. Zaption will aim to make web video more useful by providing new ways to interact with it.
Taking two years off from Columbia was not an easy thing for Stigler to arrange, especially at SEAS where students take a rigorous, sequentially scheduled course load. “This is a tremendous opportunity for Charlie and we are very excited for him,” says Leora Brovman, assistant dean for undergraduate student affairs and global programs. “So we have been able to carefully tailor a plan that will allow him to take time off for this very prestigious fellowship and then return to Engineering, and continue to be on track with his academic requirements. And, of course, once he graduates, he will also have the benefit of all the wonderful experience he will accrue during the course of this fellowship. We're very proud of him!"
Says Stigler, “I'm very grateful to Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora and Assistant Dean Brovman for all their support and encouragement. It’s great that I can keep my options open.”
Born and raised near Los Angeles, Stigler grew up immersed in entrepreneurship. His father is both a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA and an entrepreneur who has started up two companies focused on education. His mother is currently developing a computer-tutoring service for older people in her neighborhood. Stigler began developing and selling iPhone apps in his sophomore year of high school, then wrote the popular open-source study application SelfControl. That summer he founded his first company, Cubicl, with three seniors. He started working with his father on Zaption as a high school senior.
Stigler probably will eventually move on from Zaption—he notes that he can switch his project as much as he wants, with the Thiel Foundation's full support, and he is open to all kinds of ideas. “This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “Leaving Columbia is obviously a really big deal, and it took a lot of thought before I made the decision to accept the fellowship. But the way I see it, many people drop out of college to start a company even without this kind of mentoring and financial support. The fact that I have all of this support, and therefore can live and work on my projects for two years regardless of what problems I have, is actually a reduction of risk for me. I still have all of the options I have previously had, and now so many more.”
Stigler plans to live with several other Thiel Fellows in the Bay area and says he’s going to miss his Columbia friends “like crazy!”
While at Columbia, Stigler was on the lightweight rowing team. “One of the nicest things was how supportive my coaches were,” he adds. “When I had to leave Columbia for five days to interview for this fellowship, it coincided directly with an important home race (the Dodge Cup). I felt terrible letting my team down, and I was very nervous telling my coach. To my surprise, he gave me a high-five and congratulated me. Even though he wanted me there for the race, he also cared about my future outside of rowing, and that meant a lot to me.”
-Story by Holly Evarts
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