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.

It takes big money to support each child at the center -- about $2,500 -- but Skoll put that sum in perspective, saying, "It costs $40,000 a year to keep somebody in jail. You do the math."

Sixteen-year-old Tyerra Green comes from a household of 10. After two years at Strickland's Baycat, she's been hired to work on two professional video projects. "I'm the youngest one in my house to get a job this fast," she said. "I'm going to keep on going with it. Until it takes me really, really far."

Skoll was moved by the impact the program appears to be having on the kids involved. "Just talking to the kids, every one of them said that they've seen something in themselves that they didn't see before. And that's why these kinds of centers are so important," he said.

Skoll said he'd like to see Baycat-like centers in "every city in this country, and once we're done here, in the rest of the world."

Friends in and out of Hollywood said Skoll is unusually eager to share his wealth with a variety of good causes.

Robert Redford, known for his own philanthropic ventures, said, "I have not come across anyone who was so genuinely altruistic about their purpose. I've usually come across people that want to do good but they are looking for a return."

Live Your Dream Now

With so many stories of greedy corporate CEOs on their way to prison for losing sight of the little guy, how does a successful businessman remain an altruist?

Skoll said, "When I was 14 or 15, my dad, who was a very hardworking guy, came home one day and announced that he had cancer. It really struck me that you don't know how much time you have. And you really have to live your dream when you can."

And Skoll's dream is to do as much as he can to make the world a better place.

His strategy is to give $25 million a year and spread it among ingenious risk-takers.

One of those risk-takers is Kailash Satyarthii, a former engineer who risks his life to liberate families who have been sold into slavery by organized criminal gangs in rural India.

Skoll helps Satyarthii transport people from bondage to freedom. So far, Satyarthii has freed some 67,000 victims of criminally forced labor -- largely children -- and provided them with homes and an education.

Skoll also funds Martin Fisher, who invented a $50 manual water pump to help subsistence farmers in Kenya. The simple contraption works like a Stairmaster, and allows farmers to cheaply irrigate their land.

"On average, people's farm income is going up by a factor of 10 when they get one of these pumps, transforming their lives, moving them from poverty into the middle class," said Fisher.

Skoll's philanthropy has put him at No. 15 on Business Week's list of the top 50 givers.

Although Skoll has plenty of money left over, he's not living the life of a flashy billionaire. When he hired a decorator to help him with his new house in Los Angeles, he couldn't even get himself to buy a few pricey vases. "They're like $500, $1,000 and I thought, 'Hang on a second,' and I went on to eBay and found the very same vases for $30 and $40 and I bought them. If you get the same value at a lower price, that's great, and then the money can go to a good cause," he said.

Apparently, his bachelor buying days are over; he just recently got engaged. Skoll offered one last tip for happiness and success: Don't think of money as the final goal, just think of it was a way to do a little good in the world.

Skoll has a final tip for would-be billionaires, and it's one that anybody can use: Don't think of money as the final goal, just think of it as a way to do a little good in the world.