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Peter Thiel

Big tech’s big disrupter

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

He has been called the greatest venture capitalist of his generation. Yet Peter Thiel, the 53-year-old billionaire co-founder of PayPal and data-analysis firm Palantir, was a “strange, strange boy”, recalls a classmate of his in Max Chafkin’s new book, The Contrarian. Raised in South Africa and California by Evangelical German immigrants, Thiel was so square that a classmate at Stanford University pinned a poster up saying: “Under this spot, Peter Thiel first said the word ‘f***’.” As a student he once calmly told a traffic cop who stopped him that the speed limit was “an infringement on liberty”. Four years after co-founding PayPal in 1998, he sold it to eBay for $1.5bn, and wisely lent Mark Zuckerberg $500,000 to start Facebook (yet he urged him to sell it to Yahoo for $1bn in 2006 – it’s now worth $1tn).

When Gawker outed him as gay in 2007, Thiel feared the news would scare off the Arab sovereign wealth funds he had been courting. However, he married his long-term boyfriend Matt Danzeisen in 2017 and although they have a daughter, the two men live in adjacent homes in Miami bought this year for $18m. Thiel also owns a 193-hectare estate in New Zealand.

A Donald Trump fan, Thiel brokered a meeting in 2019 between the then US president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Zuckerberg. Chafkin claims Facebook agreed to continue holding off fact-checking political posts as long as the platform escaped tougher regulation (although the Facebook boss denies any such deal was reached). Why would Thiel get involved? Because, says a longtime investor in his businesses, he wants “to watch Rome burn”.