How IMSA helped alums ultimately lead YouTube, PayPal, Yelp, more
Until they set foot on campus, many of the Illinois Math and Science Academy's most acclaimed alumni say they felt not only unchallenged academically but isolated from other teens as they holed up at home, playing with computers and studying manuals.
But leaders including co-founders of YouTube, PayPal and Yelp say their time at the public boarding school in Aurora, consistently ranked as one of the country's top institutions for math and science, did more than prepare them for college and graduate school. It's where they learned to take risks, solve problems and fail as well as succeed.
As IMSA says goodbye to 200-some seniors this weekend, some of its famous alumni tell how the school helped them come into their own.
Steve Chen, YouTube co-founder
Steve Chen said high school was "more important than college" in terms of his personal development. He spoke during a return trip to campus in March, when a 6,000-square-foot center for innovation and inquiry was dedicated in the name of Chen and his wife, Jamie Chen.
Coming from Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, where he attended freshman year after moving to Prospect Heights from Taiwan, Chen said he went from being "sort of the only one that was playing around with computers" to having a peer group that "got" him.
"The first week I was really lost with the amount of independence I was given," he said of IMSA, where students are given the freedom to roam campus labs and parents aren't around at the end of the school day. Ultimately, that helped him in his work as an entrepreneur, teaching him about "being comfortable with not having structure, taking the chance to go and start the company."
Chen returned to Hersey for his senior year of high school, graduating in 1996. He then went on to graduate from the University of Illinois and served as an early employee at both Facebook and PayPal.
Yu Pan, PayPal co-founder
Years after high school graduation and a move to Silicon Valley, Yu Pan still hung around with several former IMSA classmates. Those relationships led to his position as one of the founding team members of internet business PayPal, Sarah Lacy notes in her book, "Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of the Silicon Valley."
At PayPal, Pan developed an application to allow for the secure transmission of funds, initially so people could make eBay auction payments. He was also the first employee at YouTube, working as an engineer and on product development under Chen.
Pan, who came to IMSA from Chicago and was given an alumni award in 2007, also worked for Google. After recently becoming a father to a young daughter, he co-founded Kiwi Crate, a subscription service that sends age-appropriate kits to help kids learn science, math, art and technology.
Jessica Droste Yagan, Impact Engine CEO
Sam Yagan, OKCupid co-founder
Jessica Droste Yagan and her husband, Sam, are members of the talented Class of 1995 who have gone on to dominate their respective fields as they parent three young children.
Droste Yagan, who grew up in Dow, near St. Louis, led the creation of McDonald's sustainable food sourcing strategy before she went on to become CEO of Impact Engine, a venture fund technology startup based at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.
Sam Yagan, a native of Bourbonnais, co-founded free dating site OKCupid.com before becoming vice chairman of e-dating site Match.com. He's now the CEO of online shopping service ShopRunner. He was named to TIME Magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World list in 2003.
Droste Yagan said that with "private schooling you get taught facts or equations," but at IMSA, "it's about how to learn about attacking a problem." In recent years, she said, she's been able to apply that knowledge to everything from helping startups to reinventing her own career.
Russel Simmons, Yelp co-founder
Simmons, another member of the Class of 1995, co-founded PayPal, along with Pan and several others. After that, the Homewood native was co-founder and chief technology officer of business review website Yelp Inc.
"The most fun and interesting time is when the company is a small size or medium size like a hundred people," Simmons said in a 2007 interview published by his college alma mater, the University of Illinois Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "The bigger, the more bureaucratic it is and it's harder to try out ideas."
Claudia Flores, Head of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School
Flores, a 1993 graduate, recently sat in on an IMSA class and saw "the same sense of energy and possibility" she felt as a student.
She has been a constitutional and legal adviser to the United Nations in East Timor and Zimbabwe and managed a program to combat human trafficking in Indonesia.
As a student at IMSA, where she transferred after a year at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Flores figured she would go on to a career in science and technology, but her time at the school unexpectedly fueled a passion for social justice.
IMSA, she said, took a "joyful approach to learning" and connected her with other students who were "interested in learning themes and principles ... and what was applicable in the world."
She keeps in touch with fellow alumni and this year was honored with IMSA's Alumni Trailblazer Award.
The school, she says, is "the pinnacle of what a learning environment could be."
Chen, Yagan and Flores were all on hand last month for the dedication The Steve and Jamie Chen Center, which IMSA President Jose Torres says isn't like a school building. "It feels like a collaborative space, and that's part of the IMSA spirit."
The school gave them a chance to succeed, Torres says -- and to fail.
"Here they experience that, too, and they begin to find their voice and their place in the world," he said.