The former Google CEO and his wife, Wendy, announce the winners of their nearly year-long global competition to find and fund teenagers committed to changing the world. It’s just the beginning.
Aryan Sharma is a promising 16-year-old in India. He’s already founded a couple small companies, one focused on education and another aimed at helping working-class Indians find jobs, but he has bigger ideas for ways to merge artificial intelligence and medicine. The issue: it’s tough to find support when you’re a teenager. Investors are reluctant to loan to minors, he says, and there aren’t a ton of programs that take teens seriously.
But all that changed for him one evening this past February. Sharma got a text from a friend about a program that would connect talented youngsters, put them through college and fund their bold plans to make the world a better place. “My first impression was like, ‘This is exactly what I wanted,’” he says. He applied within four hours, ultimately developing an app that uses AI and machine learning to scan x-rays for abnormalities.
Today, Sharma, who’s also working on applying AI to physiotherapy, is one of 100 global winners of the “Rise” program that were announced Monday morning. It’s the flagship initiative of a $1 billion pledge to “identify, develop and support global talent working in service of others” made by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, who Forbes estimates have a net worth of $23.1 billion.
“Both of us have had a hand at some point in our lives—somebody believed in us, somebody did something to transform our opportunities,” says Wendy Schmidt. “We realized talent is distributed everywhere in the world but opportunity absolutely isn’t.”
So they set out to help level the playing field, partnering with the Rhodes Trust (known for its prestigious Rhodes Scholarship) and dozens of other organizations in 2019 to scour the globe to find brilliant young minds—ages 15 to 17—and help them along. Turns out, there’s no shortage of teen talent. Their philanthropic vehicle, Schmidt Futures, got 50,000 applications from around the world, which it then narrowed down to 500 finalists and, after a rigorous interview process, selected 100 winners for the program’s first cohort. These teens speak more than 20 languages and come from 42 countries, including Mexico, Kenya and Afghanistan. They’re interested in everything from justice reform to biodiversity.
The winners will be getting full-ride college scholarships to any accredited four-year university they chose, plus stipends, mentorship programs and access to other winners. They’ll also get to attend a free, three-week summit with their peers scheduled for July in South Africa, and will receive laptops or tablets from the Schmidts to help everyone stay connected. Exactly how much this will all cost, the Schmidts say they don’t really know. The plan is to invest in these wunderkinds for the long haul: Rise winners can also apply for graduate scholarships, grants for their non-profits and seed money to start social enterprises.
“There’s a general consensus that great talent appears by age 16, but not by like 13 or 14,” Schmidt says.
In some ways, it’s the ultimate moonshot bet: Pouring big money into backing something as fantastical and fleeting as teenagers’ dreams of changing the world. But it’s one that has the potential to pay off big.
“This generation has no real sense of boundaries the way older generations have,” says Wendy Schmidt. “What’s so great about the age group is they don’t really know what the edges are.”
The idea for Rise was hatched on a plane ride in early 2019, while Eric Schmidt was jetting from the East Coast to attend a meeting in California for his science accelerator program. “We were asking ourselves one very hard question,” recalls Eric Braverman, a McKinsey alum and former Clinton Foundation CEO who now runs Schmidt Futures. “If you believe that humanity really can solve the world’s hardest problems, then what is it gonna take to get more exceptional people with insight to spend their lives doing that and to stay with it?”
They knew they needed to find smart youngsters who weren’t on anyone’s radar, and lower their barriers to entry. Eric Schmidt—a Berkeley computer science Ph.D who spent more than a decade at the helm of Google, from 2001 to 2011—initially wanted to seek out math and science geniuses. Wendy insisted on looking for brilliance and potential in any field.
“The science came back that there’s a general consensus that great talent appears by 16, but not by like 13 or 14,” Eric Schmidt says. Plus, at that age people are still highly impressionable. “You have the ability to change their future outcome.”
To find these teens, they partnered with organizations across the world to help spread the message. The African Leadership Group, for example, sought great young minds in Africa. The Latin Leadership Academy helped source candidates from Latin America. Rise used paper applications for those without internet access.
Lydia Ruth Nottingham found out about the program from her Hong Kong boarding school, which is part of the United World Colleges network, another Rise partner. “It seemed almost too good to be true,” says Nottingham, a 17-year-old UK native who has been elected five times to the UK Youth Parliament and has been selected for the Harvard Book Prize. “I was sort of looking through like, ‘What’s the catch?’”
She was one of thousands of applicants from more than 170 countries who went through the eight-month application process, submitting videos about themselves, peer reviewing others’ submissions and creating an individual project to showcase their talents and help their communities. Nottingham led a campaign for her school to replace disposable masks with reusable ones, and reported the project to Rise judges entirely through poetry. One of the 100 winners, she’s applying to colleges and is interested in a career in public policy.
Seattle high school junior Aadya Bhat created a device that can lower clothing racks so people in wheelchairs can reach them. “I’ve had a lot of support behind me,” says Bhat, who hopes to go to med school and open a free clinic for the disadvantaged. Other winners’ projects include writing a fictional podcast to educate peers on justice reform, building a hydroponic system for growing fruits and vegetables to address food insecurity and leading workshops aimed at preventing youth pregnancy in the refugee camp where the applicant lives.
“I was struck by the diversity of passion,” says Eric Schmidt. “Teenagers, if they’re focused, can really do amazing things.”
Even those who failed to win the full package of scholarships and mentoring opportunities get to be part of the Rise network. Many of the 50,000 applicants have already taken to group chats to keep in touch, helping each other prepare for their interviews and reading over each other’s college essays. During the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Rise community members banded together to ask Rise to help members who were stationed in the country at the time get to safety.
That’s exactly the type of support network the Schmidts are hoping to foster. “Rise is not a program for 100 people; it’s a program for the whole network,” says Braverman. “It’s not just a program for young people; it’s a program for young people who grow up to spend their lives serving others.”
Work has already begun on finding the next batch of young stars for Rise’s second cohort: Applications opened Monday for the 2022 group of 15 to 17-year-olds.
Schmidt Futures also runs a program to support promising young math, science and tech Ph.Ds, funding their one- to two-year postdoctoral fellowships—so long as they study something other than their area of expertise—and the Schmidts are exploring programs to support star tenured faculty members and college students as well.
In all, Eric and Wendy Schmidt have publicly committed more than $2 billion to charity so far, with more than $600 million already being doled out, according to Forbes’ estimates. Their Schmidt Family Foundation focuses on sustainability and natural resources, and their Schmidt Ocean Institute has funded the construction of Falkor, an ocean research vessel used by academic researchers.
Meanwhile, work has already begun on finding the next batch of young stars for Rise’s second cohort. Applications opened Monday for the 2022 group of 15 to 17-year-olds. The goal is to keep adding new classes each year, and funding their bright ideas for years. If all goes well, Schmidt hopes to scale up the program by at least a factor of ten.
“If Rise works, why would we stop at 100? Why would we stop at 1,000?” Schmidt says. “We have the money.