My name is Daniel Gross. I was born in Jerusalem, Israel. I spent most of my youth feeling like an outsider looking in. High school wasn't interesting. I didn't have many friends. And I didn't have much to be passionate about. Eight years later, I live in Silicon Valley and have built products that have touched billions of people and sold a company along the way. Today, with Pioneer, I want to help make that a possibility for anyone.
Everyone has something they are passionate about. There was one thing I loved: programming. I loved programming because I could make anything I wanted. Unlike chemistry or biology, there were no rules. No dangerous substances to avoid. The only limit was my own imagination. And I did a lot of it during my teenage years.
After graduating high school, I had felt that I hadn’t found my people or my cause in life. My Dad forwarded an article about “Y Combinator”, an entrepreneurship program in San Francisco. It sounded cool, and the people in it sounded like the kind of outsiders I wanted to be around. I connected my trusty Nokia cell phone to a clunky laptop and applied to YC from the desolate Israeli military camp where I was based. I was 18 at the time.
To my surprise I was selected for interviews. The journey from there was something of a whirlwind. I started a company called Cue, raised money from some of Silicon Valley’s best investors (including two rounds from Sequoia), and ended up selling the company to Apple in 2013 when I was 23. I became a Director at Apple, leading various AI projects before returning to YC as a Partner (I’ve since stepped down my role to focus on other efforts). The most surprising part of the experience was how much it meant for someone to believe in me. I didn’t know how important that would be, but it meant everything to find a community of similar outsiders.
I’m by no means “successful”. I was able to accomplish these things because of the people who took a bet on me despite me being unknown. Others that have gone far further started small too. SpaceX was originally conceived as the "Mars Oasis Project" -- a PR stunt aimed at increasing NASA’s budget. Google was a university research project. And many great scientists started as unknown as Ramanujan.
Over the past few years, I’ve been reading research that touches on how ambitious kids fare with a lot of interest.
For example, Raj Chetty found that "children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times more likely to become inventors than those from below-median income families" , despite low-income kids scoring just as well on early childhood tests. Chetty used the term “lost Einsteins”, referring to geniuses who would have been able to do great things had they been exposed to opportunities in the right way. We’ll never know what they could have achieved.
More recently, two economists showed how International Math Olympiad winners are broadly geographically distributed (talent is everywhere!), but that winners from rich countries have a much higher likelihood of going on to produce significant mathematical work. They observe that there’s a lot of “lost knowledge” stemming from the structural impediments facing brilliant young mathematicians in poorer countries.
Lastly, there was this pretty remarkable paper. Two researchers in the US reported that an extraordinarily cheap intervention ($6 per student) targeted at high-achieving, low-income students -- basically, just encouraging them to apply to top-tier colleges -- had a marked impact on their propensity to do so. (Students who simply saw their notice were, on average, admitted to colleges whose median SAT score was 53 points higher and that spent 34% more on their students.)
This all matched my personal experience. The combination of a few fortuitous events and people who gave an outsider opportunity drastically altered my life trajectory.
So I started to wonder: would it be possible to somehow scale this? There are obviously tons of organizations doing great work trying to create better opportunities around the world. But the vast majority were started before internet usage was so broadly pervasive among global adolescents. Could you augment their efforts by going “direct to consumer”? Could you build something that helped to identify brilliant people, no matter where they are, and help turbocharge their careers and unlock opportunities?
I started Pioneer in an attempt to build a community for people who feel the way I do about the world. It’s an attempt to find the most brilliant people in the world, wherever they are, and to identify cheap and scalable interventions that might help them achieve their goals. I want to provide some of the non-intuitive benefits of Silicon Valley to many more people.
While Pioneer will provide money to people, it’s not about the money. My hope is that this experiment can broaden people’s horizons of how they view themselves. I met amazing peers and challenged myself to do what I thought I couldn’t because of my environment.
If any of this resonates with where you are today, please sign up!