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An Entrepreneur Who Cares

Jeff Skoll thinks -- and cares -- big. He caught the entrepreneurial bug long before 1995, the year he earned his MBA at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and became the first president of eBay, the online-auction site. This was after he had already launched two of his own computer consulting and rental businesses.

A serious back problem inhibited Skoll's ability to work the long hours that eBay required -- and was good motivation to take his work in another direction. In 1999, as Skoll prepared to step away from eBay's day-to-day operations, he started the Skoll Foundation, which supports the field of social entrepreneurship, or the use of business ideas to affect social change. Throughout the transition, Skoll maintained his ties to the MBA world by serving on Stanford's board of advisers and eventually, in 2004, opening the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford Sa?d Business School in Britain.

Now, at age 40, Skoll's newest venture is serving as CEO of Participant Productions, an entertainment company currently working on eight feature movies that raise awareness of socially relevant issues. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter Jeffrey Gangemi. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How did your MBA experience affect your success as an entrepreneur?

A: A few years into starting my first company, I realized that I didn't have the business skills to [take] it much farther. For one, I was missing a general understanding of how the business world works. Deeper than that, I was lacking knowledge of financial underpinnings, as well as specific skills like organizational behavior and accounting -- all the basics that one uses for a business. I thought that going back to school would be the best way to improve those skills. Fortunately, I managed to get in [to Stanford GSB].

What was valuable wasn't just the academics but also the exposure to people who were in business. The network of classmates and alumni later became helpful when we started eBay. Right from the earliest days, some of my classmates were helpers.

I often joke that Pierre [Omidyar], a fellow Stanford MBA, and I took the company so far, and then we needed someone to manage the tedious aspects of actually running the business, so we found a Harvard MBA -- Meg [Whitman].

Q: Why did you found the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship?

A: As we began to look at the field of social entrepreneurship, we felt that it had reached a point where it warranted an academic rubric to oversee and study it. Such a tremendous groundswell of resources have been going into the world of social entrepreneurship, to the point where employment in the social sector is running about three times the rate as that of the corporate sector.

I'm still active with Stanford GSB, so that would've been the obvious first port of call. However, social entrepreneurship is an international phenomenon. Oxford's Sa?d Business School is both a very international and outward-looking school, and also one that's young and entrepreneurial enough to quickly adapt a new program into its thinking.

Each year, we award five full scholarships to MBA students who focus on social entrepreneurship. Also, we award research fellowships and make elective courses available to all MBA students. The Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, an annual event, also serves as an information-sharing venue.

Q: What are some good examples of social entrepreneurship?

A: At Stanford, there was a project that addressed a common problem in many countries -- lack of electricity. In an enclosed environment, it's unhealthy and often dangerous to start fires all the time, so a group of students invented an affordable solar-powered flashlight that charges all day and uses long-lasting LED bulbs.

Also, a group of fellows at Oxford came up with an idea to make nonarable land fertile and create jobs and make a low-emission diesel fuel that could be readily used. The idea was to plant a certain weed that grows and fertilizes the worst possible land. That weed can then be harvested and turned into diesel fuel at a fairly low cost. Because the process is labor-intensive, it would be hard to carry out in an industrialized nation but would be perfect for countries like India, where low-cost labor is available.

Q: Do you think alleviation of poverty hinges more on small or big business?

A: Right now, about half the world lives on less than $1 a day. Social entrepreneurship offers a way to get to that half of humanity that isn't attractive to traditional big businesses and bring them up the ladder. The first rungs on the ladder require a different way of thinking about things.

The concept of the microloan is effective, because it helps individuals bring themselves out of poverty with small loans and low interest rates. They start their own small businesses and are responsible for paying back the loan. Over time, the Grameen Bank, an organization in Bangladesh -- along with others that have copied the concept -- says it has lifted 60 million people out of poverty. Muhammad Yunus, the founder, is the prototypical social entrepreneur, because he had an idea that used small amounts of money yet affected many people.

Q: How have you involved MBAs in Participant Productions?

A: I had a group of four MBA students work for me at Participant Productions last summer. We ended up hiring one of those students, who is now our vice-president of strategic planning. A group of four students from Oxford will work on a project, and an intern from Stanford will join us this summer.

Q: What message would you send to MBA students?

A: In part, the message is that any individual can make a difference. Business skills, when well applied, can do more than just make money. They can potentially make money and do some real good, which is immensely satisfying. To do that, it's important to think outside the box, take risks, and be an entrepreneur.

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