Driven by an altruistic purpose that has contradicted his financial accomplishments, entrepreneur-cum-film producer Jeff Skoll has failed to live and behave like your average billionaire. Instead of using his money to make more money, Skoll has tried to use his wealth to affect change in the world - whether it has been introducing computers to Third World peoples so they can sell their goods without being undersold by corporations, or producing films that profit more from raising social consciousness than from the box office, Skoll has developed a unique vision and model for future entrepreneurs to follow. Though the jury hasn't reached a final verdict on whether or not his mission will be successful, one thing has been certain - his drive to do genuine good in the world has remained unfettered and unchanged.
Born in Montreal, Canada, the son of an industrial chemicals salesman, Skoll and his family moved to Toronto when he was 13. A quiet and serious child, he developed a bleak outlook on the future thanks to the dystopian works of Aldous Huxley and the fictional realism of Ayn Rand. At 14, Skoll realized his life's work was to change the world for the better - how, at the time, he didn't know. He initially wanted to become a writer and use the power of storytelling to do worldly good. But in order to keep up writing, he thought it practical to earn a living elsewhere. So after earning a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto - the first in his family to attend college - Skoll launched two computer consulting and rental businesses. He then returned to school, earning his MBA from Stanford University in 1995.
Ech s of his later philanthropy were evident at Stanford, where he wrote a regular column for the business school's The Reporter that explored his concept of social entrepreneurship. It was also at his Bay Area alma mater that Skoll met Pierre Omidyar, founder of would become eBay, the world's first global marketplace. Only a few months out of Stanford, Skoll was employed as a manager of distribution channels at Knight Ridder Information in San Jose, when Omidyar asked him to design a business plan for AuctionWeb, an Internet company that specialized in linking Pez dispenser collectors. What started as a niche business grew into the largest auction site on the Internet in just a few years, culminating in 1998 when the company-by then renamed eBay-went public. Shares shot through the roof and in 1999, Skoll became Canada's youngest billionaire.
Despite the egregious amount of money he amassed, Skoll lived rather modestly. He still drove his 10-year-old Mazda RX-7 and lived in a rented house with three roommates in Palo Alto. Meanwhile, Skoll made good on his promise to try to change the world for the better. In 1999, he started the Skoll Foundation, which supported social entrepreneurship and business ideas that affected social change in communities around the world. He also gave back to his alma maters, donating $7.5 million to the University of Toronto, which funded two chairs at the school's electrical and computer engineering department, part of the Rotman School of Management and created the Skoll Program, a joint BAS/MBA program in engineering. Skoll then contributed $2 million to Stanford's Graduate School of Business for a professorship in entrepreneurial studies. His dedication to creating socially-aware entrepreneurs carved into the 100-hour work weeks at eBay. In 2000, Skoll left eBay with an estimated $2 billion in hand, after having given up the reigns of day-to-day operations to veteran executive Meg Whitman.
Though Skoll remained an advisor to eBay over the years, his primary dedication was the Skoll Foundation and its various organizations, including ApproTEC, a non-profit that manufactured low technology equipment that assisted poor people in Kenya with creating over 30,000 of their own businesses. While Skoll maintained an advisory position at Stanford's business school and was board director for the Community Foundation Silicon Valley, his thoughts once again turned to changing the world through storytelling. Skoll began traveling to LA to talk to industry executives interested in creating a production company that would make compelling movies about important issues. With the help of Paramount's ex-president Peter Schlessel, Creative Artists Agency's Rick Hess and others, Skoll formed Participant Productions, which opened its doors in January 2004.
With movies like "Gandhi" (1980), "Schindler's List" (1995) and "All the President's Men" (1975) as inspiration, Skoll began producing movies that were made more for the attention paid to important social issues than their ability to perform at the box office. His first producing credit outside of Participant Productions, was on David Duchovny's directing debut, "House of D" (2005) - a coming-of-age drama about a grown man who looks back on his life as a 13-year-old boy growing up in Greenwich Village in 1973.
The first film released under Participant's banner was "Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005), George Clooney's black-and-white fact-based drama about television journalist Edward R. Murrow (played brilliantly by David Strathairn) and his questioning of Senator Joseph McCarthy's damaging crusade against supposed Communists in the midst of the U.S. government. "Good Night, and Good Luck" was a boon to Skoll and his new company, making five times its small budget at the box office and earning several award nominations, including Best Picture at the 78th Annual Academy Awards.
His next feature, released just two weeks after "Good Night, and Good Luck," was "North Country" (2005), a fictionalized take on one of America's most important sexual harassment lawsuits. Charlize Theron played an iron worker in late-1980s Minnesota who filed a class-action lawsuit against the mine owners after being the target of sexist jokes and harassment. Though "North Country" failed to bring much in the way of box office dollars, Theron did earn an Oscar nod for Best Actress. More importantly, the film raised awareness of sexual harassment and violence against women. Skoll partnered with The Family Violence Prevention Fund and the National Organization of Women to launch an Internet campaign to end sexual harassment and domestic violence - part of Skoll's double bottom line for Participant Pictures.
His next produced film, "Syriana" (2005), explored the world of terrorism and Big Oil through a multitude of storylines following Washington players, CIA agents and Middle East sheiks in their quest for power and profit, the consequences of which are disturbing and violent. Though not a powerhouse at the box office, "Syriana" did boast several award nominations and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for co-star George Clooney.
Skoll's company was set to continue his humanitarian mission with several features and documentaries, including "American Gun" (2006), a series of interwoven stories about several American communities affected by the presence of guns; "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006), a documentary that followed Vice President Al Gore around the world as he delivered his impassioned presentation on global warming; "The World According to Sesame Street" (2006), a documentary that explored the cultural, social and political impact of everyone's favorite childhood show; and "Fast Food Nation" (2006), a fictionalized telling of Eric Schlosser's best-selling non-fiction book about the treacherous nature of the fast food industry.