Should we let wunderkinds drop out of school?

Should we let wunderkinds drop out of school?

NEW YORK — It’s one thing to say tech geniuses don’t need degrees. After all, Mr Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs and Mr Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college.

BY –


NEW YORK — It’s one thing to say tech geniuses don’t need degrees. After all, Mr Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs and Mr Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college.

But now we’ve got Mr David Karp, who doesn’t even have a high school diploma. The 26-year-old founded Tumblr, the online blogging forum, and sold it to Yahoo for US$1.1 billion (S$1.38 billion) yesterday (May 20).

Which raises the question: When is it okay for a wunderkind to drop out of school?Some folks in Silicon Valley and elsewhere say a conventional education can’t possibly give kids with outsize talents what they need. Others, like Mr Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford Law School who teaches and advises startup companies, say dropping out to pursue a dream is like “buying a lottery ticket — that’s how good your odds are here”.

“More likely than not, you will become unemployed. For every success, there are 100,000 failures,” he said.

But what about kids who are so good at computer programming that schools can’t teach them what they need to know?

“That’s what internships are for; that’s what extracurricular activities are for,” says Mr Wadhwa, who has founded two companies.

Mr Karp, in an interview with The Associated Press yesterday, said he hopes teenagers don’t look at his success as an excuse for leaving school.

“That is not a path that I would haphazardly recommend to kids out there,” he said. “I was in a very unique position of knowing exactly what I wanted to do at a time when computer science education certainly wasn’t that good in high school in New York City.”


Mr Karp’s mother gave him the option of home-schooling when he was 14, after he completed his freshman year at the Bronx High School of Science, an elite New York City public school that only admits students who score well on a difficult entrance exam.

He took Japanese classes and had a mathematics tutor while continuing with an internship at an animation production company, but by age 16 he was working for a website and was on his way to become a tech entrepreneur. He never did get his diploma.

Mr Karp’s mother told the AP that she let him leave school because she realised “he needed the time in the day in order to create”.

That resonates with Penny Mills of Hudson, Massachusetts, who let her son Thomas Sohmers, 17, drop out of 11th grade this year.

“I could see how much of the work he was doing at school wasn’t relevant to what he wanted to learn,” she said. “He always wanted to learn more than what the schools wanted to teach him.

“At times it was very frustrating. I was fortunate to find people that were able to teach him more, but he has gone beyond what high school could ever give him.”

Thomas has been working at a research lab at the esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology since he was 13, developing projects ranging from augmented reality eyewear to laser communications systems.

He just won a Thiel Fellowship, which gives US$100,000 to 20 people under the age of 20 each year so they can skip college to focus on research or a dream, whether it’s a high-tech project, a business or a nonprofit.

But his mother says she would have let him drop out even if he hadn’t won the award.

“The part that really bothers me is that there are a lot of Thomases out there and their needs are not being met,” said Mrs Mills.

Thomas says he’s sad to be leaving his teenage friends behind, but he’s excited about the future. And he has mixed feelings about his years in school.

“I’ve had some amazing, great teachers that really have the passion to teach, but most of what is in school now is teaching to a test,” he said. “It’s really sad. You’re not learning the skills for how to solve the problem — you are just learning the answer to this question that is going to be on the test.”


Ms Susan Bartell, a psychologist based in Port Washington, New York who works with adolescents and their families, says she frequently encounters parents who are convinced that their kids are extraordinarily gifted. But she cautions that it’s “the very rare exception when this decision (to drop out) makes sense”.

In the case of Mr Karp, she said: “It worked out, but almost always it doesn’t — even if a kid is extremely gifted. School is about much more than just academics and in most cases, even the most gifted kids need the socialising.”

And not all young moguls take Mr Karp’s route. Earlier this year, a 17-year-old from London, Mr Nick D’Aloisio, sold an app he created to Yahoo for US$30 million — but he decided to stay in school.

On the other hand, there are examples of successful individuals in many fields who lack a high school diploma, from top performers such as Jay-Z to billionaire businessmen such as Richard Branson.

The tech community may be different from other industries. Degrees are not necessarily seen as a hallmark of achievement and programmers are judged on their ability to type lines of code. You are what you create.

What also sets the field apart is that computer programming is not taught at every high school, and even when it is, the most talented students often either “surpass the curriculum or feel it’s not relevant to them”, said Ms Danielle Strachman, programme director for the Thiel Fellowship.

“They want to move at their own pace,” she said.

Ms Strachman also emphasised that just because someone has left school, doesn’t mean they’ve stopped learning. The Thiel programme provides not just funding, but a community of peers and mentors to help recipients reach their goals. And they can always go back to pursue a degree when the fellowship is over.

It’s a goal that even Mr Karp has his eye on— despite his newfound wealth.

“I hope I have an opportunity to go to school at some point,” he said, “and study something completely different.” AP

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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