Engineer, Billionaire, Vice President and
Co-founder of eBay
Billionaire and Engineer Jeff Skoll
34, with the Internet's most popular auction site, Jeff Skoll became the fifth-richest
BY MARK EVANS
DESPITE THE ENORMOUS SUCCESS of eBay Inc., Jeff Skoll claims that his life hasn't changed much - he still drives a 10-year-old Mazda RX-7 and lives with several friends in a rented house.
That's a little surprising for one of the Silicon Valley's newest multi-billionaires, but Skoll, who graduated from the University of Toronto in 1987 with a degree in electrical engineering, says things have pretty much stayed the same since eBay emerged as the Internet's most popular on-line auction site this past year. "I am still doing what I was doing before - strategic planning and analysis. It keeps me pretty busy," he says, joking that his schedule doesn't give him "a lot of time for beer lately."
The Internet moves so quickly it's no wonder that Skoll, 34, has had little time to reflect on his accomplishments, let alone go on extended shopping sprees - via the Web or otherwise - with some of his reported $4.2-billion net worth. That figure fluctuates with the current share price, but with an 18.9-per cent stake in the company's stock that went public last September, Skoll became the fifth-wealthiest Canadian on the planet, according to the Canadian Business Rich 100 list.
Since June of 1996, eBay, the world's number-one "personal trading community," as he prefers to call it, has attracted 3.8 million registered users who seek to buy and sell everything via the ether from fine art to Beanie Babies. This year the company projects $2.7 billion US in transactions, yet he seems as rooted in reality as the day he made the dean's honours list on graduating from U of T.
Part of Skoll's obvious tendency to understate his success might be attributed to his Canadian roots. He was born in Montreal and moved to Toronto with his family when he was 13. During his undergraduate years he co-edited engineering's satirical student newspaper, The Toike Oike; then he founded two companies in Toronto: Skoll Engineering, a computer consulting firm, and Micros on the Move Ltd., a computer rental operation. Despite these forays he felt he needed to improve his business skills, so he completed an MBA in 1995 at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.
Safwat Zaky, chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering and Skoll's fourth-year project supervisor, is not surprised that he has thrived in the business world. "He had a tendency to be independent and come up with ideas." All the same, Skoll's decision in 1996 to leave a stable job with Knight-Ridder Information to develop the Internet auction site was a gamble. Although his salary was set at $30,000 US, initially he drew no pay at all.
eBay's roots date back to 1995 when founder Pierre Omidyar and his fiancée were talking about the difficulty she was having trying to contact other people who collect Pez candy dispensers. Omidyar realized the Internet would be the perfect vehicle to create a trading community, but on-line auctions were still more a concept than a business when Skoll and Omidyar quit their jobs a year later to work on the project full-time.
As president of the San José, Calif.-based company, Skoll set about engineering its growth. A key component of that challenge was acquisitions, as eBay moved into new areas and international markets. There has been a dizzying series of deals in the past year, including the purchase of Butterfield & Butterfield of San Francisco, one of the world's most prestigious fine-art auction houses.
Skoll relinquished the title of president last year to become vice-president of strategic planning and analysis, which allows him more time for business development. While he has played a crucial role in eBay's rapid growth, he is also a great believer in supporting the community around him. This became clear in July when he made a $7.5-million gift to the university to finance a joint program that will allow students to take a degree in engineering simultaneously with a master's degree in business administration.
Of the $7.5 million, $4.5 million will be used to create two chairs at the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering and one chair at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management. This money will be matched by U of T. The remaining $3 million of the gift - matched by the Ontario government - will help finance the construction of a new centre for information technology .
The plan is the culmination of something Skoll has been thinking about since he graduated and pursued a career as an entrepreneur in the high-tech industry. "When I was at U of T, I got a good technical education," he says. "What I didn't learn and what I didn't see available was a perspective on what you do with it all and how you build a career."
Jeffrey S. Skoll
Jeffrey S. Skoll served as eBay's first full-time employee and first President, creating the business plan that the company still follows. Widely credited for his leadership in creating eBay's values-centered culture, Mr. Skoll was vital to spearheading the remarkable phenomenon of the eBay community, now more than 60 million strong.
In 1998, Mr. Skoll led eBay to become the first Internet company to take an active role in philanthropy, pioneering creation of the eBay Foundation through allocation of pre-IPO shares; this innovation sparked similar initiatives by other young companies in high technology hubs across the U.S. United States. In 1999, Mr. Skoll created the Skoll Foundation - a foundation that takes an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy, seeking out and backing the world's most promising social entrepreneurs in order to effect lasting, positive social change world-wide. Today, Mr. Skoll serves as chairman of the Skoll Foundation and plays a critical role in continually building the foundation, which ranks in the top tier of foundations nationally.
Mr. Skoll's recent honors and awards include Canada's 1999 Leafy Award for his contributions to high technology; a 2001 Visionary Award from the Software Development Forum; the 2002 Outstanding Philanthropist Award from the Silicon Valley chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals; the 2003 Outstanding Philanthropist Award from the International Association of Fundraising Professionals; and, in 2003, an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from his alma mater, the University of Toronto. In 2002, Mr. Skoll was identified by Business Week as one of the most innovative philanthropists of the past decade.
Mr. Skoll remains active as an adviser to eBay, Keen.com and Ovation Entertainment. He serves as a Board director for the eBay Foundation and Community Foundation Silicon Valley and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, among others. Mr. Skoll holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Toronto and an M.B.A. from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Speeches and Published Work by Jeff Skoll
Select a Speech 06.18.03 University of Toronto Convocation Speech 03.25.03 AFP Outstanding Philanthropist 11.14.02 AFP Outstanding Philanthropist 07.07.01 Software Developers Forum 10.12.00 Community Foundation Silicon Valley - SV2 Speech 08.17.00 Baycat Speech 04.27.99 Community Foundation Silicon Valley - SV2 Speech
Delivered at University of Toronto
By Jeff Skoll, 06.18.03
Dr Dellandrea, for the wonderful introduction and thank you to Chancellor
Jackman, President Birgeneau, Dean Martin, Dean Venetsanopoulos and the University
for conferring upon me this honorary doctorate. Finally, my mother can say
"my son, the doctor." Better still, since this is a doctorate of
Laws, my mother can also say "my son, the lawyer." Since I'm already
an Engineer, I think that completes the proud mother trifecta.
Speaking of proud mothers, this day truly belongs to those of you who are graduating today and to your families. You have come to the fruition of many years of hard work and you should be proud of what you have accomplished. But keep in mind that none of us made it here entirely on our own. We had the support of this university, a society and culture that values education and, in particular, we had the help and encouragement of our parents and families. So, to all of our parents and families here today who are bursting with pride on our behalf, thank you.
I've been asked today to share some words of wisdom with you. But given that I'm still pretty young and at one time I was the editor of the Toike Oike, our not-so-venerable Engineering student newspaper, I'm not sure what wisdom I actually have to offer. The good news is that I don't remember my convocation speaker and you probably won't either, so whatever I say will likely have a very short shelf-life.
First, I'd like to tell you a little about my background. I share this with you so that you'll see that I'm about as likely as any of you to be standing here today.
I grew up in Montreal, which as you know is a great hockey town. As a kid, I played hockey myself and though I was small, I made up for it by being slow and uncoordinated. Also, when I was about 12 or 13 I used to sell electronic keyboards door-to-door. Unfortunately, the only I song I knew how to play was O Canada, not a very popular choice in the heyday of the Separatist movement. One lady even sicced her dog on me. I knew then that I didn't have a great future in sales.
When I was 13, my family moved to Toronto. During high school, I realized I had a propensity for taking things apart but not much ability to put them back together. So I decided to study engineering.
My four years at U of T in electrical engineering were marked by long hours, hard work and the occasional disaster. In one of my fourth year classes, my lab partner and I managed to blow up his parents' basement while trying to etch some circuit boards. I'll never forget the look on his parents' faces as they staggered down the stairs at 5am through clouds of acrid smoke. Still, I'm amazed that that was the worst thing to happen with all those nights of sleep deprivation. Those of you who are graduating here today know what I mean. In fact, I think I see a few people sleeping right now.
After graduating from U of T, I decided to backpack around the world despite admonishments from my classmates that I would "never get a job" when I returned. When I did get back, I started a systems consulting business and a few years later I followed that by launching a computer rentals business. Finally, I realized that I was an engineer running two businesses and I didn't really know what I was doing, so I headed off to Stanford Business School. Years later, I created the Skoll Program- our joint engineering and business program here at U of T - so that others could avoid repeating my business follies. For example, it would have been helpful to know that revenues should exceed expenses.
While I was doing my MBA at Stanford, I met a fellow by the name of Pierre Omidyar. Just after I graduated, Pierre approached me with the idea of building a company to help people buy and sell things with one another online via an auction format. With my Stanford business degree in hand I knew I was right on the money when I said "Pierre, what a stupid idea."
Nonetheless, I decided to join Pierre and eBay was born. In many ways, I saw eBay as a true engineering challenge: how do you get millions of people together to trade in one place (Civil Engineering); how would they physically transfer their goods (Mechanical engineering); how do you leverage the Internet (Computer and Electrical engineering). Finally, how do you do all this while working 100+ hour weeks, wired on coffee and Mountain Dew (that would be Chemical Engineering).
Through my role in eBay, I have been blessed with many resources that have helped me to pursue an even bigger dream. Ever since I was a kid, I observed that many of the problems in the world - ranging from disease to crime to terrorism to drugs - were caused by the gap between rich and poor, be it rich nation / poor nation or rich community / poor community.
Through the Skoll Foundation, I now have a chance to make a difference in that equation, and we are working with some of the greatest entrepreneurs in the non-profit world to make the world a better place. I've even started making movies to tell the stories of these inspirational people and their work. Of course, I'm being mindful of the expression - the surest way to become a millionaire is to become a billionaire and then go into the movie business.
Now that you know a bit about me, I would like to share some observations that I hope will be helpful to you as head down the road to accomplishing your own dreams. These observations fall into 4 categories:
Number 1: Learning is a lifelong experience. You may have reached the end of a long journey today, but there are many important journeys to follow. The most effective people - including Nobel prize winners like Mike Spence, business leaders like Ted Rogers and social leaders like David Suzuki - all Canadians by the way - never forgot the value of ongoing learning. Moreover, no matter how intelligent and accomplished, these people always felt they could learn more by listening to other people and by recognizing the value of different opinions and different cultures. All of you graduating here today are really, really smart…but if you remain open to learning then you will one day not only be smart, you will also be wise.
My second observation comes from a line from one of my favorite books, the Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay. The line is "First with the head then with the heart." First with the head, then with the heart. What better advice for anyone starting out on his or her career? If you are able to make a life plan for yourself and then work towards that plan with heartfelt passion, you will accomplish amazing things. In my case, around the time I was graduating from U of T, I thought about what I wanted written on my tombstone and then I worked backwards from there. This technique has helped me to make better decisions throughout my life and then to feel good about those decisions. So, First with the head, then with the heart.
Number 3: Take risks. You've all heard the expression "nothing ventured, nothing gained." People have high expectations of you and while the path of least resistance is good for electrons, it is not so good for people. When I joined Pierre at eBay I took no salary at a time when I was buried by school debt and could barely afford to eat. People told me I was crazy. But if I hadn't already thought through my life plan and I wasn't willing to take a risk then I would not be here today. Remember, it is your life to live and nobody can live your dream for you. Travel, seize opportunities and don't let others' expectations keep you from fulfilling your own expectations for yourself.
Finally, give back. Conrad Hilton once said that there is a natural law that people should give back to the society that helped them achieve success. You are all people of great privilege and with privilege comes responsibility. Give back to your community, give back to your school, give back to the world and you will be repaid many times over.
In closing, I'd like to say that today is a celebration. You are graduating into a different world than when you began your studies, a world that has changed after September 11th. But for every setback there has been at least one great accomplishment - decoding the human genome, progress on AIDS, advancements in nanotechnology. Remain hopeful because there is much good to be done in the world and you as Engineers - the world's greatest problem solvers - have a unique opportunity to make a difference.
I encourage you to continue learning throughout your lives, to act first with the head, then with the heart, to take risks and to give back, because I believe that each and every one of you can potentially change the world. And that can only spell good things for all of us in the years to come.
Oh, and one more piece of advice - wear more suntan lotion!