Jeff Skoll was the first employee of the online auction Web site eBay. As president during its crucial early years of the mid-1990s, Skoll was a key player in the growth of the company from one of the first financial phenomenons of the new Internet age to a literal online community, with millions of users around the world. But Skoll, a Canadian with a strong social conscience, bowed out of the business world at an early age and began to devote his time to philanthropy, or donating large sums of his personal wealth to worthy charitable causes. He still holds a stake in eBay, just less than 8 percent, and in 2005 those personal stock holdings were valued at $3.7 billion. With his wealth he has funded the Skoll Foundation, which has over $500 million in assets. The foundation gives grants to socially responsible business ventures and funds charitable projects around the world.
Skoll was born in January 1965 in the French-Canadian city of Montreal. He was in his teens when his family moved to Toronto, Ontario, where his father owned a company that supplied industrial chemicals to businesses. His dad came home one day with news that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the kidney. "I remember my dad saying that he wasn't so sad that he might die, but he was sad that he'd never done the things that he'd wanted to do in life," Skoll recalled in an interview with Thomas Watson for Canadian Business. His father survived the illness, but the event had a lasting impact on Skoll, who was a teenager at the time. He vowed that he would never face the same dilemma, the realization that he had put his career ahead of his personal goals.
Skoll wanted to become a writer. He thought, however, that he should first earn enough money to live comfortably, so that he could pursue that goal without the stress of needing to succeed financially in it. With the idea of making some money during his twenties and then retiring early, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Toronto. After he earned his degree in 1987, he founded a computer consulting firm, and he also had a lucrative computer rental business. Realizing that he was short on the management skills needed to run a successful business, he went back to school and earned a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) degree. He was accepted into the prestigious graduate business school of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
Moving to America was something of a culture shock for Skoll. Though there were street people in Canadian cities like Toronto, he was stunned to see the numbers of homeless in nearby San Francisco and even in smaller cities clustered south
"I never really expected to have a ton of money. As it happened, eBay kind of worked out."
of the San Francisco Bay Area, where U.S. high-tech companies were flourishing. Individual Canadians, and Canadian businesses, paid higher taxes than their American counterparts, and those tax dollars funded a social service network designed to help the disadvantaged; they also helped to finance a universal health care system for all. Skoll became editor of the Stanford business school's student newspaper, The Reporter, and began to write about the gap between the rich and the poor in the world, and what a new generation of business-school graduates—his generation—might do to close it.
Skoll earned his M.B.A. degree from Stanford in 1995. He took a job in nearby San Jose with Knight-Ridder Information, a division of the American newspaper chain, as manager of its distribution channels. That same year, a casual acquaintance of his, a computer programmer named Pierre Omidyar (1967–), launched an Internet site he called Auction Web. Omidyar had written a unique software program for it, and he thought that he might be able to use sales of that software to finance a larger online empire of Internet-user services. One day, he told Skoll about his plan. "First he told me it was a stupid idea," Omidyar recalled in an article he wrote about Skoll for Time International, "and then he agreed to come on board."
Omidyar initially hired Skoll to write a business plan, a lengthy formal document that fledgling entrepreneurs must show to bank loan officers or potential private investors. When eBay was officially born as a company late in 1995, Skoll was the first employee listed on the payroll. The eBay name came from Omidyar's first company, Echo Bay Consulting Services, and he and Skoll saw it as merely the name of the holding company for the planned empire. But eBay's auction site began to catch on quickly, gaining thousands of new users each month. Most were buyers and sellers of various collectibles, such as the popular Beanie Baby toys, but soon others began to sell vintage vinyl records, clothing, tools, and even furniture on eBay. The auction site earned its revenues from a small percentage taken out of every listing and another fee subtracted from each completed sale. A feedback system, in which users could report fraudulent transactions, helped keep the system honest.
Skoll and Omidyar were surprised by how quickly the eBay idea caught on. "In those early days we saw disaster around every corner," Skoll joked in an interview New Zealand Management. "It was quite possible that the whole thing would fall apart right away. . . . We were always mindful that at any given moment a bigger company, a Yahoo, an AOL or an Excite, could turn its attention to this space, copy what we had done, and very quickly swamp the numbers we had developed."
In its first years, eBay did not even have a real street address— Skoll's home in Palo Alto served as its headquarters. He quit the Knight-Ridder job in 1996 to become eBay's full-time president, and he oversaw the company's impressive growth over the next two years. EBay's revenues grew so exponentially during its first four years that some business analysts began to claim that it was the fastest-growing company in history.
On September 24, 1998, eBay issued publicly traded shares of stock in the company on Wall Street's NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations) exchange. It was one of the top initial public offerings, or IPOs, of stock that year, and 218 million shares were traded that first day. Skoll was given a 7.9 percent stake in the company, with shares initially valued at $18 each. The massive media coverage of the IPO finally erased the skepticism that Skoll's family had voiced about his job. "Before then, I'd talk to my parents back in Toronto and explain what eBay was doing," he told Susanne Baillie in Profit. "They'd say, 'Oh, that's great. Your cousin Jerry has just started a dry cleaners!"'
Meg Whitman (1956–), a leading American corporate executive with an impressive resume, had replaced Skoll as president in the build-up to the 1998 IPO. Skoll served as eBay's vice president for strategic planning and analysis, but the long hours on the job caused back problems, and he began moving away from the daily operations at eBay. Though he was now a millionaire, he still lived in his modest home in Palo Alto and drove the same car he had in college. But he became increasingly interested in sharing his wealth. Even before eBay's IPO, he had convinced other executives to set up the eBay Foundation, a charitable fund created to give back to the community, with pre-IPO shares. When the Foundation's 105,000 shares of stock began trading on the NASDAQ, the earnings from it funded various charitable projects, such as homeless shelters in the Bay Area.
In 1999, Skoll began giving away some of his own money. His donations included the largest amount ever given to a Canadian university by someone under the age of forty. He gave the money to his alma mater, the University of Toronto, to create a joint engineering/business degree program. He also donated a sum to
Jeff Skoll is not the only eBay executive who has turned to philanthropy. Founder Pierre Omidyar (1967–) created the Omidyar Foundation, and from that grew his Omidyar Network. The Network provides funds to such good-works projects as the Grameen Bank, which gives microloans to small business start-ups in Bangladesh, and Kids Voting USA, a youth voter-education effort in American public schools. It also gives money to non-profit organizations as well as for-profit ventures that encourage positive social change.
Skoll and Omidyar have set a good example, but they were merely following in the footsteps of others before them. The leading philanthropist of the high-tech boom is Microsoft founder Bill Gates (1955–), who set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is the world's largest charitable foundation, with an endowment of $28.8 billion. In 2005, it gave $750 million to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization to improve children's health around the world.
Gates's software giant created a large number of millionaires in the decade after its 1986 initial public offering, or IPO, of stock. The price of one share of Microsoft stock soared a hundredfold in its first decade of trading. Employees who had been with Microsoft in its early days, and received stock options as part of their benefits packages, were millionaires by the mid-1990s. Some of them cashed out that stock and began venturing into philanthropy. One such "Microsoft millionaire" was Stephanie DeVaan, who founded a political action committee in Washington, D.C, called Washington Women for Choice. Another, John Sage, founded Pura Vida, an organic coffee supplier.
Stanford University for its Center for Electronic Business and Commerce and became increasingly active in the Community Foundation Silicon Valley (CFSV). This umbrella organization provided grants and funds to several local charities and social-service agencies operating in the southern part of the Bay area known as Silicon Valley. This corridor of communities, anchored by the city of San Jose, is the center of the U.S. high-tech industry, and its industrial parks are home to the headquarters of such companies as Apple Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems.
In June 1999, Skoll set up his Skoll Community Fund to specifically fund the CFSV's work, and he also encouraged others to join him in giving back to the community. Since the Internet era had begun in the mid-1990s, there hadbeen an immense number of new millionaires created among Silicon Valley executives when their companies became publicly traded ones. Skoll began meeting with them and urging the new "dotcom millionaires," as the media called them, to become philanthropists, too, by donating "to a cause they cared about," he told Watson in Canadian Business . "You know, they have millions and millions of shares, and if they give away a hundred thousand shares, they're not gonna miss it. But if the stock goes away, at least they will have done something good."
Skoll also launched the Skoll Foundation in 1999. Its aim was to further the idea of social entrepreneurship, or combining the profit-centered focus of business management with the idea of improving the lives of the planet's neediest citizens. As he knew from his eBay experience, an idea that personally changed people's lives could also have immense profit potential. Many people who had otherwise been shut out of the traditional economy, such as stay-at-home mothers, disabled people, and senior citizens, had found on eBay a way to earn extra or even primary income, and many reported that they had found a tremendous sense of accomplishment as well. Social entrepreneurship expanded that idea further. Finding ways to help underdeveloped countries prosper was one way. "Right now, about half the world lives on less than $1 a day," Skoll explained to Jeffrey Gangemi in Business Week Online. "Social entrepreneurship offers a way to get to that half of humanity that isn't attractive to traditional big businesses and bring them up the ladder."
Skoll's commitment to the principles of social entrepreneur-ship was demonstrated with the establishment of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University in England. The Center was part of Oxford's Said Business School, founded by Syrian-born entrepreneur Wafic Saïd (1939–), who made a fortune in construction in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s during its oil-boom years. One example of work done there was a project created to improve land that is not arable, or able to grow crops, by planting a fast-growing weed that fertilizes the soil. The weed, in turn, can be harvested and made into diesel fuel. The process requires a fair amount of labor, but such projects are a suitable match for parts of Africa and the Third World where people are plenty but jobs are scarce.
Skoll also became one of Hollywood's unlikeliest new film moguls when he established Participant Productions, a film-production company, with actor, director, and producer Robert Redford (1937–). Its mission, Skoll told the press, was to make feature films and documentaries with a social message. Its first project was Syriana, a political thriller centered around international oil espionage starring Matt Damon (1970–) and George Clooney (1961–). The work was slated for a November 2005 theater release. Another work funded by Participant Productions was American Gun , a feature film about gun violence and its effect on the lives of several individuals. Skoll's film company hoped to finance a half-dozen similar projects every year and would put up the first $20 million or so; a major studio—like Warner Bros. Pictures, which helped finance the making of Syriana —would contribute the rest. "It helps that I'm able to bring some of the financing, because it takes some of the risk out of the equation for the studio," Skoll told Fortune journalist Adam Lashinsky. "People genuinely want to make films they can be proud of."
Skoll views his philanthropy as a logical extension of his business ideas. There was, he told Della Bradshaw of the Financial Times, "a great social element to eBay. We think the heart and the wallet go very well together." He explained his philosophy further to Business Week Online. "Any individual can make a difference," he asserted. "Business skills, when well applied, can do more than just make money. They can potentially make money and do some real good, which is immensely satisfying."
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