Nice Guys Can Finish First

ByABC News
December 1, 2005, 11:36 AM

Dec. 2, 2005 — -- 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.)

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.

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."

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.

And she seems to have the determination and ambition to make the most of her talent.

"I'm going to keep on going with it. Until it takes me really, really far," she said.

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 says 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 say 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."

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 hard-working 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.

Today, for all the millions he gives away he's still got a lot left over for himself.

But 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 onto 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.

And Skoll has a final tip for would-be billionaires. It's one that anybody may apply. If you want what's at the core of his success and satisfaction, don't think of money as the final goal, just think of it as a way to do a little good in the world.