HOW PETER THIEL BROKE MY HEART

The story begins about 2 years ago when yours truly came upon the tech legend, Peter Thiel. As a tech aficionado and aspiring junior VC, boy was I enamored : co-founder of Paypal (PYPL: 50B market cap), co-founder of Palantir (last equity round valued at 20B), first outside investor in Facebook (FB: 371B market cap), president of Clarium Capital - a global macro hedge fund ($700M in AUM), managing partner in Founders Fund (VC fund with $2B in AUM), co-founder of Mithril Capital, co-founder of Valar Ventures, founder of Thiel Fellowship … and the list goes on. I mean what is there not to admire. His book Zero-To-One instantly become a must-read in the tech/VC community and he rose higher and higher up in the pedestal I put him at, squinting from so far down below I was literally an ant.  

I wanted to emulate a similar philosophy to Thiel’s – have the courage to take the path less unknown, less popular and of course if possible contrary to mainstream. And as a wannabe numerate person, I adored his ability to break down patterns into first principles, creating frameworks for startups, and following rational logical steps to get to an outcome. Basically he was the VC “role model” I highlighted in almost every VC interview I took.

All was going great and dandy. I was doing my thing, Thiel was presumably doing his thing. But then in May 2016, news broke about the Hulk Hogan case – Thiel had been stealthily funding a law suit that finally made Gawker Media bankrupt and the media industry was shaken as they saw it as a restriction on their freedom of speech. For those not with much background here: basically Gawker Media released a Hulk Hogan sex tape in 2012, which Hulk sued them for in the same year. Thiel funded that lawsuit but that was only publicly released in May 2016. Thiel made his case by suggesting the media needs some morals in check and they can’t just publish whatever they feel like and a line needs to be drawn. Others say, wait no, Thiel must still have been angry from that 2007 article Gawker titled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people” (that was malicious no doubt) but what does it mean for the overall society if only one powerful man gets to draw that line for everyone else – it is a similar concern Joi Ito has about only one single group doing the majority of training of our AI today and how do we incorporate collective values and ethics from our society. All to say: remember the pedestal – I could see dents formulating.

Shortly after these events, Thiel announced he was a Trump supporter and speaking at the RNC debate and I was horrified. Why?! How could he endorse someone who is so callous with his words (say-whatever-you-want is not a quality I want in a president, notwithstanding the fact that quality is indeed very appealing in Kanye West)! Endorsing Trump means one is okay with his behavior, which is different from being vocal about why there needs to be a major political overhaul in the US.  And understanding that distinction meant the pedestal needed to be in debris form right now.

Btw, see the irony here from these two events: Thiel wants our media outlets to have vocal morals but it’s okay if the prospective US president doesn’t hold himself to that standard? Anyways, I had thought Thiel was open and inclusive and pro-diversity and the best in all ways but his actions were suggesting something different. Then I stopped for a bit and reflected – there was literally no reason for me to have formulated an opinion surrounding his personality. I never met him, I don’t know him, I don’t know anything about his childhood – and I realized I tagged onto the ideologies I thought he would have based on all his strong professional competencies. Now, I do think Thiel’s desire to hurt Gawker and supporting Trump makes complete logical sense, for Thiel. He is an Ayn Rand devotee after all, although seriously how is she still a thing (#<3JO)? All my politically savvy friends tell me if Trump were to get elected, the average white male in the US will benefit the most (or so they perceive), and because all human beings (myself included) are wired to act from self-interest motivations, of course Thiel wants to look out for himself. But writing an op-ed about why supporting Trump is right for the country with no specific arguments about how Trump will fix these issues (past government failures is not a reason to vote for Trump but rather the ability to fix government failures) is really not helpful.

Now I am not writing this post because I think the world gives 2 cents about characteristics I seek in a role model (professional competences and values combined) but I am writing about it because I know Thiel is someone whom millions of Americans look up to for leadership and yearn to follow in his footsteps. It becomes an issue to raise especially because of the reach someone like Thiel possesses. And I know like me there are others in the tech community who are as baffled and frustrated that such a great visionary is now tied to something we ourselves are not comfortable tying ourselves to. Not because we don’t want to go against the grain but because we want to make sure even down the unbeaten path we strive to pick the right grain.

To end, I need to say I will probably always find brilliance in Peter Thiel’s work; but the broken heart will never mend. Actually, on 2nd thought, I think I should end on the note that Palantir (a founded and funded Thiel company) is currently being sued by the US Department of Labor for discrimination against Asians.

Disclaimer – I am a non-US citizen with neither a voting right nor any pedigree on the matters of politics. I am a citizen of a community trying to understand the world though and this is an attempt to paint an objective picture around this current issue.

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Some other related links should anyone wish to peruse further:

  • ST’s thoughts on Thiel's op-ed piece – brilliantly written and wanted to share:

"I'm not sure if Thiel understands how our country breeds institutional and technological innovation in 2016. There's been a dramatic change in how our country invests in R&D projects since the Manhattan project (something Thiel should be well aware of seeing as Palantir is partly funded by In-Q-Tel, a VC fund operated by the CIA). A lot of times the funds that the government allocates both in public and private sector development go unseen. Not to mention the innumerable, incredible discoveries that have been made in medical / scientific fields due to NSF or NIH grants. Reporting a few highly publicized failures while completing failing to acknowledge the flip side is classic Trumpism - spouting off about how beleaguered our country is with problems using only anecdotal evidence while ignoring facts, all without offering a single tangible solution.

The way he crafts his argument is also extremely misleading: the F-35 jet is a project that would be undertaken by a private engineering firm on a DOD contract. I don't think there is any truly progressive liberal alive who would argue that the DOD is underfunded. He then goes on to paint the DC metro infrastructure project with the same brush, however, infrastructure projects DO have a long track record of being terribly underfunded (watch the John Oliver episode if you need a refresher). To posit that Jeb Bush's loss in the primary despite his dramatic out-spending of Trump proves that "it's not how much money you spend, but how you spend it" is a complete straw-man since he is trying to counter the argument that increased public spending will lead to more efficacious government projects. That's not the way you debate.

Notice how he conveniently cites how much the jet has cost thus far (15 x more than the Manhattan Project) but doesn't mention how much money had been initially budgeted to address the DC metro's failures. That's likely because the F-35 project IS overfunded (something liberals would not argue) and the DC metro project probably DOES need more money to successfully improve performance (undercuts his point).

Problems like the ones facing the DC Metro go unfixed because they don’t attract the US's greatest talent pool. Government work is unglamorous and extremely poor-paying compared to private sector jobs that require the same output productivity-wise. That is the closest Thiel gets to identifying real issues with our society today. Workers who are not as highly trained / educated settle into these unionized, pensioned jobs in the public sector. These workers aren't as accountable as those in the private sector and the issues they create are more glaring because they impact the general public as opposed to a boardroom of investors.”