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Draper University Welcomes First Class of Heroes

SAN MATEO — Collete Davis stood up from her beanbag chair and introduced herself to a roomful of eager students. When she mentioned her love of Tesla cars, Tim Draper tossed her the key to his prized Model S.

That’s just the sort of thing that happens at Draper University of Heroes, which greeted its inaugural class of 41 students Wednesday morning at the refurbished Benjamin Franklin Hotel in downtown San Mateo. From its grandiose name to an offbeat curriculum that includes survival training and culminates in a business pitch to big-time investors, the boarding school for aspiring entrepreneurs is a distillation of the maverick venture capitalist’s playful personality.

Draper has created his own Hogwarts academy, a place where carefully selected pupils learn to conjure the spirit of innovation and launch successful enterprises in the real world. They are taught that being an entrepreneur, or “disrupter,” requires a certain state of mind: one that is bold, curious, relentless and risk-embracing.

Tina Seelig, a Stanford University engineering professor who sits on Draper University’s board of directors, said the quarterly school’s unique approach is meant both to empower young people to believe they can make a difference and to provide them the tools to actually do it.

“Tim understands that entrepreneurship involves more than knowledge and skills — it depends on having the right attitude,” said Seelig, who also serves as executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. “He has created experiences that help participants build their confidence and commitment by pushing them far outside of their comfort zone.”


Draper, 54, made his first foray into education in 1997 with BizWorld, a nonprofit that teaches young children about business and innovation. Three years later he floated Proposition 38, a school voucher initiative born out of his belief that the California educational system fails its students.

Though he threw at least $16 million behind the measure to give parents at failing schools $4,000 to spend at a private or public school of their choice, he was outspent and out-campaigned by the state teachers’ union. The measure was trounced at the polls.

Members of team Blizzard work on their first project on the first day of class at Draper University in San Mateo, Calif., on Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (John Green/Staff) ( JOHN GREEN )

Though he maintained his interest in education, it wasn’t on his mind in April 2011 when he purchased the aging Benjamin Franklin as an investment. But when Adam, one of his four children, suggested he use the nine-story landmark to fulfill a long-standing dream of establishing a school, the idea for Draper University started clicking into place.

“My mission in life is to spread entrepreneurship and venture capital around the world,” said Draper, whose international investments include Skype and Baidu. “We’re hoping that this becomes a magnet for all the best and the brightest from all over the world who want to start businesses and they don’t know how to get started.”


The founder of Menlo Park venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson didn’t become a fan of comic books until he was 21, when a friend bought him the latest issue of “Spiderman” as a birthday gag. But he has made up for lost time.

Draper University is awash in superhero themes, from a pledge the students recited Wednesday morning to the cape they will receive in eight weeks upon graduation. Those are just two of many unusual touches at the school. Among the others are customized scholarship offers, walls made of scribble-friendly white board, and a reading list that includes Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation.”

Davis, the Tesla fan, is a budding race-car driver. The school waived tuition for the 19-year-old Daytona Beach, Fla., resident in exchange for her sporting the Draper University logo on her uniform and vehicle. She hopes to launch an educational company that engages students through the science of automobile racing.

“I’m so excited,” Davis said of the school. “There’s so much that could happen that will change my life.”

She took Draper’s Tesla for a spin Wednesday afternoon. Had Davis attended the university’s pilot class over the summer, she would have met Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the electric automobile company’s plant in Fremont. Musk is one of the university’s real-life superheroes — his photo adorns the school’s entrance. Draper Fisher Jurvetson has backed all three of his current companies: Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity.


There is plenty of room for improvement in the field of business education, Musk asserted in an interview Tuesday. He regards the traditional business education as a poor use of time.

“I don’t think business school teaches you very well how to create a company,” Musk said. “It’s worth noting that an MBA is a master’s in business administration. It’s not a master’s in business creation.”

That, its founders hope, is where Draper University enters the picture. There are other business schools in California that allow students to focus on entrepreneurship — USC and Stanford among them — but arguably none that light up the brain’s neurons quite so wildly.

“This is an amazing school,” said Draper, who has spent more than $20 million buying and renovating three buildings to serve as a campus. “It’s so different from anything you’ve ever seen.”

Draper designed the school’s curriculum, taps his Silicon Valley network for guest speakers and generally fills the role of emcee. He plans to eventually scale back his day-to-day involvement.

To those who would dismiss the school as a gimmick, Draper says the institution’s success will be expressed soon enough through its graduates. He expects to turn out “superstars” — some, or perhaps many, of whom will wind up in the Draper Fisher Jurvetson pipeline.

“This is really ambitious and really serious and it all has to work,” Draper said. “This is going to help all of the venture business, ultimately.”

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at

Draper University at a glance

Venture capitalist Tim Draper on Wednesday greeted the inaugural class of Draper University of Heroes, an entrepreneurship school in San Mateo. Tuition: $7,500 (Future sessions will be $9,500) Enrollment: 41 students (future enrollment will be as high as 100) Foreign students: 15 Students from the Bay Area: 10 Length of session: Eight weeks (six weeks in the summer) Age of students: The school is intended for people 18-26, with a few exceptions


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