Lunch with the FT: Jeff Skoll

By Stefan Stern (Financial Times)

Can you become a billionaire by accident? It seems unlikely. Surely wealth of that kind has to be fought for and won against almost impossible odds. Billionaires, you might think, should be imposing figures, battle-hardened veterans from the financial world.
But if you had asked other diners at The Jam Factory in Oxford on a recent, damp lunchtime to pick out the billionaire in the room, I doubt they would have pointed to the FT’s guest, Jeff Skoll. Slim, slight even, with flyaway brown hair and a short stubbly beard, he looked more like a young academic or artist than a corporate titan. The taller, more heavily built gentlemen (a press officer and some other suited figures) who had arrived with him and gone to sit at a corner table, looked more the part.

Skoll was formally dressed too, but less assertively. He was wearing a dark blue suit, light-coloured shirt and pale blue tie. Having only just arrived in the UK from Los Angeles a couple of days earlier he was still pretty jet-lagged. But this did not explain his quiet demeanour. Skoll doesn’t really do media, you see, only one extended interview a year at best. He was here on sufferance, offering himself for interrogation, to publicise his philanthropic work with the Skoll Foundation (more on that later). Even though he was probably dreading the next 90 minutes, his manners were impeccable. He shook hands, smiled bravely and sat down.

The 44-year-old made his money as the first company president at Ebay, the online auction site. He joined the then one-year-old company in 1996 after completing an MBA at Stanford in California in 1995. He wrote a business plan for company founder Pierre Omidyar and stuck around for five years, when he stepped back from the business. Two months after the company’s flotation, in September 1998, Skoll found that his (then) 22 per cent shareholding made him a billionaire. The precise level of his wealth has fluctuated since, of course, and he has sold shares to fund his activities but in March this year Forbes magazine estimated he was worth $1.8bn (£1.13bn).
What would you do with that sort of money? How would it make you feel? Skoll is, I sense, deeply uneasy about the whole thing. He’s really just a nice shy kid from Toronto (mum was a teacher, dad was in business). He didn’t ask to be rich. It just sort of happened.
The venue for our lunch is The Jam Factory, an arty café in the old Frank Cooper marmalade building in Oxford. It turns out to be a good choice. Skoll has crossed the road from the Said Business School, where he is attending his own Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship, which is being staged, in Oxford as usual, for the sixth time.

The waitresses are attentive and are soon by our side taking the order. We both opt for the (very good value) £5 “quicky” offer: soup and a sandwich. Skoll goes for tomato and basil soup followed by a coronation chicken sandwich, while I have carrot, parsnip and lentil soup with the gravadlax sandwich to follow. There being no iced tea available – this is England, after all – my guest has to settle for mineral water. I have a ginger beer. One of the richest men in the world is going to have one of the cheapest ever lunches with the FT.
When he left Ebay in 2001, there was only one direction for a reluctant billionaire like him to head in. “I had started to think about philanthropy, which I’d never really thought about before, because I never had any money,” he says. “I was living off room-mates’ leftovers and then all of a sudden I had all this money.” He sounds half-sad, half-amazed. But while he had sincere ambitions to support social entrepreneurship – business people who try and make money working on worthwhile causes – his initial efforts were, by his own admission, patchy.

This changed when Skoll met and briefly worked with John Gardner, who had been the minister for health, education and welfare under Lyndon Johnson, and the architect of his “great society” programmes. “He said something that really stuck with me. I said, ‘Look, I’m trying to figure out my own philanthropy, I have set up a foundation [the Ebay Foundation] and I’m doing different things.’ I asked him, ‘What do you think is the most effective way for philanthropy to make a difference in the future?’ And he said: ‘Bet on good people doing good things.’
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