Thiel Fellowship Aims to Close the Gender Diversity Gap


Gender diversity is a key priority for the Thiel Fellowship, who are actively striving to close the gender gap and support young women in tech.

By Vanessa Mason (eHealth Senior Manager, ZeroDivide)

Already in its fourth year, the Thiel Fellowship identifies and supports 20 young innovators in their teens and early twenties each year by connecting them to resources such as mentoring and internships so they can leave the classroom for two years to change the world.

This year’s 20 Under 20 has a record 25 percent women in its class. Thiel Fellowship Program Director Danielle Strachman shares the approach to recruitment and the application process as well as plans for the future of the Thiel Fellowship to continue building gender diverse classes.

More Outreach, More Engagement

While male and female applicants tend to have the same questions during the application, Strachman has observed that women need a bit more support and confidence.

The Thiel Fellowship experimented with new outreach strategies, reaching out through Thiel Foundation Summits in the field as well as through partnerships with other women’s STEM organizations such as Girls Who Code.

She also added opportunities for one-on-one discussions during online office hours through Ohours. These additional touch points helped applicants hear stories to make participation seem more achievable and relatable.

A Chance to Chase a Dream

Fellow Lucy Guo, whose fellowship activities focus on building a platform that will allow anyone to easily create multiplayer educational games with customizable content, saw the fellowship as a chance to chase after her dreams.

Guo learned about the Thiel Fellowship from a mentor who participates in the fellowship community. After attending the first summit she was hooked on the energy associated “with several bright minds collaborating on ideas and projects.”

Fellow Grace Gee, who is building CortexML, a data analytics platform for machine learning (ML), was also drawn to people she met through the application process. Gee participated in office hours hosted by Strachman and connected with a fellow alum, Zach Hamed, and other mentors to refine her application.

Strachman has emphasized that the fellowship is limited by its nature. The additional outreach and support was viewed as a way to build a better ecosystem for young female innovators.

Data-Driven Decision Making

The Thiel Fellowship application process is blind, in an effort to evaluate non-quantifiable data without bias due to gender, race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status. But the lack of data collection does complicate efforts to understand which techniques are effective at producing more diverse fellowship classes.

Strachman related that female fellows from prior classes have shared anecdotes about the lack of support. While a 25 percent female class is remarkable, she would like to eventually see gender parity. The fellowship is actively pursuing partnerships and sources for support that can scale to achieve this goal including the Grace Hopper Celebration and DevelopHer.

Mentors and Role Models

The most important resource for the continued and future success of 20 Under 20 are the current and the past fellows. They refer applicants for future classes, host office hours, offer mentoring for applicants and, most importantly, act as role models for what success can look like. Their sustained involvement provides the best data on what is working to engage female applicants.

Guo has been building websites since second grade and has attended several hackathons. She is using her experience with owning a virtual pet site in sixth grade to recruit artists for her current project. In addition to showing how their background shapes their fellowship experience, other female fellows are blogging to share their experience as well as how their previous expertise led them to the fellowship.

Plans for the Future

While Strachman is excited about this year’s class and progress with gender diversity, she would love to see more than incremental change. Strachman will continue supporting female coders by encouraging their participation in hackathons. She is cautious about offering prizes specifically for female coders, potentially distracting from discussions about their talent. The persistence required to participate in hackathons tends to be a greater predictor of success for the fellowship compared to simply intellectual knowhow.

While Gee, has already achieved early success, she is still wrestling with concept of seeing herself a role model. She hopes to mentor other girls in the machine learning and computing community, connecting them to scholarship and internship opportunities for female engineers. These opportunities allow women to learn from each other and build a supportive community.

While Guo doesn’t yet consider herself a role model for young female innovators, she wants to be an example that women have to follow a traditional path. Guo wants to see more programs for young children to learn about STEM, gain skills and pursue ideas they have.

Noting the power of stories for recruitment, Strachman has also proposed developing a video series in addition to Teen Technorati and their 20 Under 20 Documentary series. The videos would feature female fellows that highlights their start in tech, their challenges and plans for the future. These inspirational stories would share the diversity of the fellowship activities ranging from social movement to companies and make the fellowship experience relatable for potential applicants.

Can you recommend any additional strategies and partners that support young female innovators?

Photo of 2013 Thiel Fellows courtesy of

Vanessa Mason

Vanessa Mason (@vanessamason) is the eHealth senior manager at ZeroDivide where she advises on the design, development and adoption of digital health for the underserved. Vanessa also consults on global health and technology development and adoption. She earned her BA from Yale University and her MPH from Columbia University.