When I first dropped by the fund, in August, Abraham was on his way to somewhere in Europe, raising money for his new company. I follow Masters past the counter holding a copy of a book in the picture of Donald Trump, and into his office, where the glass door collapses at the push of a button, straight out of Star Trek. There is a bench and a chair, but no table. Instead, a bookshelf stretches from floor to ceiling, containing bookshelves like Power broker and Immortal.
Masters and Abraham took control of the fellowship about 15 months ago, and they are responsible for its current direction. They removed the massive annual summit that had grown to include graduate students but also had hundreds of other business hopes, because they felt these summits were too orthodox. They will become a stop on the party of young startups. “I remember we had to team up with Major League Hacks, an organization that provides all the hackathon content, to make sure it doesn’t happen on the same weekend,” says Masters. Instead, the scholarship now hosts smaller, infrequent events for the finalists.
In the early years, graduate students need more structure and guidance; they often live together, and their attendance is expected at events more often. Because they are young, and their projects are immature and sometimes difficult to use, they need more support on the basics. In addition to helping give tips on fundraising or recruiting methods, the former directors of the scholarship also lending out dating advice, advice on table manners and often acting as a parent. Now that the graduate students are making more outside business efforts, their needs are different and often less; one key point for the most successful graduate students – people like Leimgruber whose schedules are already closed – is that the scholarships won’t work; it will help.
The central tenet of the modern version of the public relationship is that there are no real requirements. Masters and Abraham are always ready to advise their founders. Abraham kept a rigid schedule and set office hours for meetings. Masters tend to be more fluent; a colleague can text him and he often tries to get back in touch with them during the day. “I have kids who wake up and scream in the night. So I was there for email at 2 a.m., ”he said. Fellows receive books – and pay – by mail each month, and fellows connect with them to see how things are going. Scholarships also organize intimate dinners regularly in San Francisco, and sometimes New York. But graduate students don’t have to come.
Masters and Abraham also made some changes to the selection process. They added three years to the age limit so they can reach stronger candidates. Today, they are accepting new fellows on a rotational basis, allowing the fund to add a few PhD students per month and announcing graduate fellows for the entire year — now 30 — every June. From the outset, the job application was rigorous, including essays and test scores. “We’ve changed the app five times,” says Masters. “Each time we decided it was really long and cumbersome, and we didn’t get the information we wanted.”
They received around 6,000 applications for graduate students this year, but 60% of current fellows did not apply. Instead, Master and Abraham exploited their network to introduce and recruit them. A prime example is Boyan Slat, a long-haired European who founded The Ocean Cleanup at the age of 17 and became the youngest person ever to receive the United Nations’ highest environmental award. Slat leads a team of more than 40 people at a foundation in the Netherlands, where he started developing technology to clean up a giant plastic dump located on top of the Pacific, between California and Hawaii. Masters met him last year when he went to the fund to request funding. Slat, 22 years old this year, looks older than he is. Thiel’s team turned the chance to sponsor him, but the Masters still remembered him. Earlier this year, when Slat was in San Francisco for a fundraising trip, they met again. “I didn’t expect much, but I joined the meeting because someone introduced us,” Masters said. “Right away, he was impressed.”