Nice Guys Can Finish First

Three films that are considered serious Oscar contenders -- "North Country," "Good Night and Good Luck" and "Syriana" -- have one thing in common. They are all bankrolled by one man, a man whose life story might be said to share a title with a less prestigious film -- "Revenge of the Nerds." He's the 40-year-old mogul who heads Participant Productions, Jeff Skoll.

In under a year, this unlikely Hollywood hotshot has attracted big stars and big buzz.

"I tip my hat to him. It's amazing to find somebody who wants to do socially responsible films. Very cool. Very rare," said actor Woody Harrelson.

Charlize Theron had this to say about this mogul with a social conscience. "Jeff's my husband. We're secretly married. Did nobody know that?"

"I knew I had kind of arrived in the Hollywood scene when I was at the Vanity Fair party.

"I was talking to some folks, Adrien Brody over there, Tom Cruise over there, Gwen Stefani to my right. And I feel a tap on my shoulder and I turn around and it's Paris Hilton. And she gave me her phone number and said 'call me.' So, that was really flattering," Skoll said.

(He didn't call her.)

Advice for Would-Be Billionaires: Don't Give Up

All of this glamour and success is pretty heady for someone who grew up in middle-class Canada, and put himself through the University of Toronto before embarking on a business of his own.

His first venture -- computer rentals -- flopped. Skoll said that's lesson No. 1 for would-be moguls -- keep trying.

He went on to Stanford Business School, where he became friends with Pierre Omidyar. "Just after I had graduated, Pierre had come up with this idea to help people buy and sell things online. And this was in, you know, late 1995," he said.

Working out of Skoll's apartment and eating cereal for dinner, the duo did what he suggests any budding entrepreneur should.

They drew up a business plan for their company -- a company they called eBay.

"In business plans you have a chart that, in year five looks absolutely insane and no business ever hits their five-year projections," he said.

But eBay wasn't your typical business. "In its second year, we exceeded all the projections I had for that fifth year. And so we really knew we were on to something," Skoll said.

He certainly was onto something. As the business press took note, eBay made Skoll a billionaire at 36.

Expect Goodness from People

EBay's success, Skoll said, was all propelled by the simple notion that buyers and sellers will be honest with each other.

Here's another tip from Jeff Skoll: Believe in the essential goodness of human nature.

"Essentially the company has built on trust, and that harkens to a philosophy I've always had: If you give people the opportunity to prove themselves good, they will," he said.

That trusting philosophy made Skoll enough money to be a big player in Hollywood, but his heart is also in another kind of moviemaking.

He funds San Francisco's Baycat arts education center for at-risk children. It's run by Bill Strickland, who, when funds were tight, found a benefactor in Skoll.

Strickland said Skoll told him the art center's work reminded him of the early days of eBay, when Skoll and his partner couldn't get a bank loan.

The money needed at Strickland's arts center comes to some $2,500 per child.

But Skoll put that sum in perspective, saying, "It costs $40,000 a year to keep somebody in jail. You do the math."

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