Peter Andreas Thiel is a German-American billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist. A co-founder of PayPal, Palantir Technologies, and Founders Fund, he was the first outside investor in Facebook. He was ranked No. 4 on the Forbes Midas List of 2014, with a net worth of $2.2 billion, and No. 391 on the Forbes 400 in 2020, with a net worth of $2.1 billion.
Early life and education
Thiel was born in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, on 11 October 1967, to Susanne and Klaus Friedrich Thiel. The family migrated to the United States when Peter was one and lived in Cleveland, Ohio, where his father worked as a chemical engineer. Klaus then worked for various mining companies, creating an itinerant upbringing for Thiel and his younger brother, Patrick Michael Thiel. Thiel's mother became a U.S. citizen, but his father did not.
Before settling in Foster City, California in 1977, the Thiels lived in South Africa and South West Africa (modern-day Namibia). Peter changed elementary schools seven times. He attended a strict establishment in Swakopmund that required students to wear uniforms and utilized corporal punishment, such as striking students' hands with a ruler. This experience instilled a distaste for uniformity and regimentation later reflected in his support for individualism and libertarianism.
Thiel played Dungeons & Dragons, was an avid reader of science fiction, with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein among his favorite authors, and a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien's works, stating as an adult that he had read The Lord of the Rings over ten times. Six firms (Palantir Technologies, Valar Ventures, Mithril Capital, Lembas LLC, Rivendell LLC and Arda Capital) that he founded adopted names originating from Tolkien.
Thiel excelled in mathematics, and scored first in a California-wide mathematics competition while attending Bowditch Middle School in Foster City. At San Mateo High School, he read Ayn Rand, admired the optimism and anti-communism of then-President Ronald Reagan, and was valedictorian of his graduating class in 1985.
He studied philosophy at Stanford University. During that time, debates on identity politics and political correctness were ongoing. A "Western Culture" program, which was criticized by The Rainbow Agenda because of a perceived over-representation of the achievements of European men, was replaced with a "Culture, Ideas and Values" course, which instead pushed diversity and multiculturalism. This replacement provoked controversy on the campus, and led to Thiel's founding The Stanford Review, a conservative and libertarian newspaper, in 1987, with funding from Irving Kristol. Thiel served as The Stanford Review's first editor-in-chief and remained in that post until completing his Bachelor of Arts in 1989.
Thiel enrolled in Stanford Law School and earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree in 1992.
While at Stanford, Thiel met René Girard, whose mimetic theory influenced him. Mimetic theory posits that human behavior is based upon mimesis, and that imitation can engender pointless conflict. Girard notes the productive potential of competition: "It is because of this unprecedented capacity to promote competition within limits that always remain socially, if not individually, acceptable that we have all the amazing achievements of the modern world," but states that competition stifles progress once it becomes an end in itself: "rivals are more apt to forget about whatever objects are the cause of the rivalry and instead become more fascinated with one another." Thiel applied this theory to his personal life and business ventures, stating: "The big problem with competition is that it focuses us on the people around us, and while we get better at the things we're competing on, we lose sight of anything that's important, or transcendent, or truly meaningful in our world."
After graduating from Stanford Law School, Thiel clerked for Judge James Larry Edmondson of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Thiel then worked as a securities lawyer for Sullivan & Cromwell in New York. He left the law firm after seven months and three days, citing a lack of transcendental value in his work. He then took a job as a derivatives trader in currency options at Credit Suisse. He joined them in 1993 while also operating as a speechwriter for former-United States Secretary of Education William Bennett, before returning to California in 1996 to seek a more meaningful occupation.
Upon returning to the Bay Area, Thiel noticed that the development of the internet and personal computer had launched the dot-com boom. With financial support from friends and family, he raised $1 million toward the establishment of Thiel Capital Management and embarked on his venture capital career. Early on, he experienced a setback after investing $100,000 in his friend Luke Nosek's unsuccessful web-based calendar project. However, his luck changed when Nosek's friend Max Levchin introduced him to his cryptography-related company idea, which later became their first venture called Confinity in 1998.