The education of Jeff Skoll

Written by Rick Spence

Rick Spence

Growing up in Montreal in the 1970s, Jeff Skoll worried a lot about the world. “Politics, the environment, overpopulation — the future seemed very scary,” he says. Unusually sensitive and serious, he decided to become a crusading writer who would explore society’s problems and promote solutions.

Knowing that writing alone wouldn’t pay the bills, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Toronto, then opened two computer-related businesses. Then, realizing how little he knew about business, he enrolled at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

You may have heard the rest of Skoll’s story. In Silicon Valley he met software engineer Pierre Omidyar, who ran a modest auction website. When Omidyar decided his not-for-profit service could “scale” (Valley-speak for “grow like a weed”), he asked his MBA friend to draw up a plan. At first Skoll thought the whole idea stupid. But the more he thought about the concept, the more excited he got. The fruit of his labors: eBay, Earth’s first global marketplace.

Skoll, as eBay’s first president, stepped aside for more experienced management in 1998. Three years later, he left the company to become a full-time philanthropist. With 10% of eBay’s stock, worth about US$3 billion, “it dawned on me that I had the opportunity to do more than write about the problems of the world.” But he firmly believes that with privilege comes the responsibility to give back.

Skoll is giving back in spades. Today he runs the San Jose-based Skoll Foundation, with assets of US$300 million. Most meaningful, though, is its mandate. The Skoll Foundation doesn’t throw money at established social agencies. Skoll is placing his bets on what he calls “social entrepreneurs” — hands-on innovators driving social change at the grassroots. He’s targeting ventures that are, yes, scalable, and people who might just work miracles with a few hundred thousand dollars more.

Among the organizations funded by Skoll is ApproTEC, a Kenyan non-profit that manufactures low-tech equipment — such as oilseed presses, hay balers and a $75 water pump called the “SuperMoneyMaker” — that has helped individual Kenyans start more than 33,000 businesses. “It helps people climb out of systemic poverty,” says Skoll, who enthuses about ApproTEC co-founder Martin Fisher, a Stanford PhD: “His vision is to expand this throughout all of Africa and essentially build a middle class.”

Another beneficiary is Bill Strickland, a black community leader from Pittsburgh who founded a ceramics-training institute that did more to reduce youth unemployment and instill hope than any dozen government programs. “Today he’s moved into computer training and gourmet cooking, and is graduating about 1,000 kids and at-risk adults every year,” says Skoll. He hopes to see Strickland replicate that success across the U.S.

But what Jeff Skoll really wants to do is direct — or, at least, produce. He now has three film companies on the go. One is producing documentaries on successful social entrepreneurs, while the others are for-profit businesses that will try to make films that promote positive social values. “We want to produce socially redeeming, meaningful and inspiring content,” says Skoll, who cites such films as Schindler’s List, Gandhi and Trading Places that successfully mix entertainment with a message.

Skoll admits that Ovation Films’ first release next May, a Ray Romano comedy called Eulogy, doesn’t meet his socially uplifting objective. But he has higher hopes for House of D, starring Robin Williams and David Duchovny. It’s a coming-of-age story in which a young boy learns from a female prisoner and a mentally challenged caretaker. “The moral of the story,” says Skoll, “is that no matter how handicapped you are, you can contribute to the betterment of another person.”

You can almost hear the studio tycoons chortling. Skoll admits even his investment advisors are “tearing their hair out” over his plans. But he believes the public is weary of Hollywood’s unimaginative, amoral formulas (Scary Movie 3, anyone?), and is ready for new ideas: “My thesis is that people want to see films that will not only entertain them, but also give them hope and inspire them.”

“Naive” is a label one hesitates to apply to a billionaire. (“Idealist” sounds so much more positive.) But Skoll has seen the transformative power of entrepreneurship so often, from eBay to Africa, that you wouldn’t want to bet against him. And he can afford to make a few mistakes.

© 2003 Rick Spence

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