SAN MATEO, CALIFORNIA —
Many future entrepreneurs first attend university and business school. In Silicon Valley, though, a place that celebrates innovation, there is a school aimed solely at current and future entrepreneurs that uses unconventional methods of teaching.
Most of the students did not expect jumping into a chilly pool with a billionaire investor would be their first step at Draper University. But the unexpected is the norm at Draper, and Aima Ohiwerei from Nigeria is experiencing it first-hand.
“It’s not like your regular school. Kind of like pushes you to try and imagine more than you can actually think you can imagine,” said Ohiwerei.
WATCH: Video of young entrepreneurs in action
One drill is to try crossing the street blindfolded with only the help of verbal instructions.
Thinking about doing something beyond the conventional is what Draper University tries to teach, says the school’s founder and venture capitalist Tim Draper.
“People need to be able to step out, apart from the crowd, and try extraordinary things and now that we’re all interconnected, and all communicating with each other throughout the entire world, it’s even more important for people to be able to step out and do something a little different,” he said.
Draper says for entrepreneurs to move outside their comfort zones takes a certain mindset and emotional tenacity.
“I’m trying to get into people’s heads that starting a business is very difficult. You will be up against a lot of pressures and we want you to, after going through this program, we want you to be able to be immune to the pressures that are going to be coming against you,” he said.
That’s exactly what Ohiwerei hopes to learn in this seven-week course. “Just push through all the negative thoughts and all the negative comments towards your startup, toward you, just push through that’s what I want to learn.”
“I would like to know how to be fearless, just go full speed without stopping,” said David Lopez, a student from Peru.
Hundreds of students from more than 70 countries have attended this entrepreneurship course. Students between 18 and 28 years old learn to be emotionally prepared for entrepreneurship by listening to Silicon Valley startup founders who have succeeded and those who have failed. They also experience some unusual training, like a volleyball game they play where the rules keep changing.
“Different things start to happen and their brains start to open up and they start thinking anything is possible,” said Draper.
Consistent with the uniqueness of the school, the graduates become superheroes. They get a cape and mask as they are sent out as entrepreneurs to change the world with their unique ideas.
Life after graduation
While there are many schools and programs in Silicon Valley that teach students how to start their own business, Draper University has a particularly unusual teaching method.
Its founder, venture capitalist, Tim Draper says the program’s goal is to mentally prepare people for the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur. Two graduates tell their story of life before and after the program, in this second of two reports from VOA's Elizabeth Lee.
It’s not a coincidence that Christine Ntim lives and works just 10 minutes from the airport in New York.
“Vietnam, Japan, China… I’ve only been to four countries on the African continent,” she said.
Ntim grew up in Haiti and loves to travel. Her travels led to her form Vendedy, an online directory of street markets.
“I come from a generation of street vendors, so my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mom were all street vendors in Haiti," she said. "I didn’t realize this was a way of life for people. That’s how things just got started.”
What helped Ntim’s company to reach the next level was an entrepreneurship program at Draper.
“I grew up as a street vendor, so I grew up knowing how to sell anything," she said. "So if I am feeling uncomfortable, I knew this was a different experience. I had to sell rubbers – it’s a better way to say – it or condoms. That was awkward.”
In the classroom and out in the field, the school’s founder Draper says he pushes students to think creatively to overcome challenges. His aim is to nurture entrepreneurs, calling them super heroes.
“You need to be resilient, tough, determined, you have to be able to overcome great barriers to be very successful,” he said.
International student body
Students from more than 70 countries have attended Draper University. Graduates have created about 350 companies.
Pakistani native Asra Nadeem felt immediately at home at Draper, where she is the Graduate Program director. "All my life, being a woman from Pakistan, one of the things I’ve heard the most that I have to be less loud. My mother’s never been happy with how loud I am."
In contrast, Nadeem says her assertiveness is celebrated here. Her crazy ideas are embraced. "I wanted to build vertical cities or I wanted to talk about mining asteroids."
When the students graduated with super hero masks and capes, Nadeem says she wore hers with pride.
“All your life you’re feeling like an outsider and that’s kind of where the super hero theme comes in. Super heroes are also these anomalies, these people who always feel like outsiders and all of a sudden you have all these people who are great in some aspect or the other who think about all these revolutionary things and they’re together,” she said.
When Nadeem graduated, Draper offered her a job because of her assertiveness. She now helps in fostering more super-hero entrepreneurs by leading them through unconventional tasks.