Jeffrey Skoll: Why Delay? Give It Away

Jeffrey S. Skoll lit up Silicon Valley as the first president of eBay (EBAY ) Inc. Then, in 1999, when he was all of 34, he used $34 million from the proceeds of eBay's initial public offering to set up the Skoll Foundation, making him one of the youngest philanthropists in U.S. history. Typical of his recent projects is a $7.5 million grant to Oxford University to integrate social entrepreneurship -- the use of business skills to attack social problems -- into the curriculum. His third act is no less audacious: taking on Hollywood by producing films about his favorite characters, social entrepreneurs. He talked with BusinessWeek's Michelle Conlin.

When did you feel your first charitable instincts?

My philosophy started when I was a kid. My family camped in upstate New York, and there wasn't a lot to do. So I would read -- books like Brave New World and 1984, [authors like] Ayn Rand and James Michener -- and it just struck me that the future was looking pretty scary. It also seemed that a lot of the problems derived from the inequities between rich and poor. I wanted to make a difference in that equation.

Did you always envision yourself becoming a philanthropist?

My goal was to be at the point -- no older than 40 -- where I would have enough resources to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged people.

You've always done things on a big scale. Where does that ambition come from?

When I was 14, my Dad came home one day and told us he had cancer. It was looking pretty bad. And I remember him saying how afraid he was that he hadn't gotten to do the things he wanted to do during his life. He had surgery and survived. And he's still alive today, thank God. But it made a big impact on me.

Did you always see yourself becoming an entrepreneur?

I wanted to be a writer, to write these stories that would make people see the world in a different way. But I ended up going to business school because I thought I could ultimately get to where I wanted to go faster that way.

You promote the idea of other young people giving away money earlier rather than later.

I do encourage others to do the same. Probably the biggest frustration I had during the boom was talking to highfliers, young folks who had a huge amount of paper fortune. My rationale was: "Gosh, set aside some of that wealth in a foundation. If it all disappears tomorrow, you will still have that." A lot of people just didn't do it. Most had the same rationale as Warren Buffett: that they were better off spending their time making money.

After eBay hit, did you ever think of just retiring and writing?

The reason I was trying to write was to get across this vision, and I realized that in addition to the foundation, I could use movies to spread my message about people who change lives through social entrepreneurship. Movies like Gandhi and Schindler's List.

You say you are in the giving-while-living camp. Lately, you've been accelerating your gifts. Why?

My hope is that I'll see real results during my lifetime. I certainly expect the results to at least happen within the lives of my kids.

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