Nice Guys Can Finish First

Few people ever see the Hollywood sign, let alone single-handedly bankroll some serious Oscar contenders.

Forty-one-year-old Jeff Skoll, head of Participant Productions, is one of those few moguls. He put up his own money to make "North Country," "Good Night and Good Luck" and "Syriana." Most recently, he was the executive producer of Al Gore's global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," now one of the most successful documentaries of all time.

In just a couple years, 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 is also a fan. "Jeff's my husband. We're secretly married. Did nobody know that?"

Skoll remembers the day he felt he'd really made it in Tinseltown.

"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. 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 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 two did what he suggests any budding entrepreneur should do.

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 on to something. EBay made Skoll a billionaire at 37.

Expect Goodness From People

Another tip from Skoll: believe in the essential goodness of human nature.

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

"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.

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