A little too much disruption for Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s iconoclast-in-chief

December 12, 2014, 12:21 AM UTC
PayPal Inc. Co-Founder Peter Thiel Interview
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal Inc., speaks during a Bloomberg Studio 1.0 Interview in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Peter Thiel *******PLEASE HOLD UNTIL SEPTEMBER 17 AIRDATE****
Photograph by David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Peter Thiel does not like disruption.

“You shouldn’t get your bearings from breaking things, but rather from creating them,” the well-known venture capitalist and recent author told a packed auditorium at University of California at Berkeley Wednesday night.

A good forty minutes into his talk, Thiel, a co-founder of online payment service PayPal and early Facebook investor, was disrupted: protestors stormed the stage and shut down the event.

Thiel was invited to discuss development in the developed world by the Berkeley Forum, a non-partisan student group that brings speakers to campus. The evening, the product of nearly two months of work, was to be divided into four parts: a speech by Thiel, an interview by a student moderator, questions from specially selected audience members, and a final audience Q&A, capped off with his signing his recent book, Zero to One. His appearance just happened to coincide with an uptick in Berkeley’s famous political activism following the recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo. and New York related to police killings involving African-Americans.

During the first half of his speech, Thiel discussed the importance of monopolies and iconoclasm. A noted libertarian, he once wrote that freedom and democracy are incompatible. A good monopoly is one that innovates and creates new things, he pointed out, saying his advice was for entrepreneurs to pick small markets where they wouldn’t face much competition. Google is a monopoly when it comes to search, he explained. They just don’t talk about it.

Thiel also mentioned that society resists innovation. “There’s a strange phenomenon in Silicon Valley where most of the people who start companies suffer from mild Asperger’s,” he said. “That’s a critique of our society, not of them.” Anyone with interesting ideas will be talked out of them, while investors are socialized to invest in what sounds familiar, rather than in ideas that could be game-changing.

Anyone who copies Facebook or Google is missing the point, he said, because Facebook and Google were game changers. To succeed, entrepreneurs have to do something that’s radically different from the status quo.

“Trends are overrated,” he said. “If you hear big data or the cloud, run away, it’s a fraud. A buzzword tells you someone is undifferentiated in a category.”

As he spoke, a slow rumbling from protestors could be heard in the background. From time to time it was loud enough to drown him out.

“That’s so Berkeley,” Thiel said, while the audience laughed.

There was less laughter when one of the organizers asked for help barricading the doors because protestors were trying to enter. Members of the audience rushed up the aisles to assist.

When everyone was seated again, Thiel continued accompanied by the rumble of protesters screaming outside and a steady pounding against the doors. Soon after, the organizer told the audience she could no longer guarantee their safety and asked what they wanted to do (they voted to continue). A student moderator asked Thiel how he felt about the tradeoffs between political activism, which can provoke change but also impacts productivity.

“Political activism makes people angry,” Thiel said.

At that point, almost on cue, an audience member stood up and yelled, “F—you.” The doors of auditorium burst open and a flood of protestors waving signs spilled across the auditorium and chanted “No NSA” before switching to “Black lives matter.”

The audience, indignant about the interruption, surged to its feet and chanted “go home,” and “Peter Thiel matters.” For a few moments there was a screaming stand-off as the protestors and audience members faced each other.

Thiel was escorted off of the stage and organizers relayed the obvious: The event was canceled. A protestor apologized to organizers – sort of – before leaving.

“I’m sorry but we had to shut it down to get media attention,” the protester said.

Afterwards, organizers and attendees gathered in small clumps to voice their outrage. “It was unproductive for the protestors and it was unproductive for us,” said Serena Gupta a math and computer science major at Berkeley. “They should have started a dialogue. Thiel would have been open to questions, he stayed on stage until they were in his face.”

Parthiv Mohan, a cognitive science and computer science major, said: “The protestors chanted as if we thought black lives didn’t matter. For all they know we could have been out protesting with them last night.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of U.C. Berkeley student. He is Parthiv Mohan, not Parthir)