Lunch with the FT

June 12, 2009 10:53 pm

Lunch with the FT: Jeff Skoll

Illustration of Jeff Skoll

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.

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Lunch with the FT

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.’

“He felt that there were people in society who would be doing things of their own accord, who saw something that they wanted to fix and who needed support. And that really dovetailed with the kind of people that I’d been funding and that had been so interesting.

“There was kind of a wide-open opportunity to give these social entrepreneurs what they needed in terms of funding, and the kind of support they needed, which was flexible and strategic,” Skoll continues. “We formed the partnership with Oxford [the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, founded in 2003 with £4.4m of Skoll Foundation money, which is a research centre and “hub” for innovators], and in 2004 we had our first forum here.”

But surely the marriage between a business school and progressive causes is an odd one? Not at all, says Skoll. As became clear at the first annual gathering: “It was like Woodstock, with all these people that never knew each other existed,” he says. “We didn’t know the forum would be successful at first, but once we saw everyone together and there was just that energy, we knew we were on to something and it’s really been great ever since then.”

The relationship with a business school has allowed Skoll to provide formal MBA education to people who might not ordinarily have been able to experience it. “Much like I needed the MBA to help me advance from a business perspective, the social entrepreneurs could benefit as well. But for the most part they can’t really afford an MBA; nor can they take out two years to do it, hence the centre and our scholarships. It’s a one-year MBA and there are five scholarships for these social entrepreneurs that come into the programme. It’s worked out very well.”

Initially, Skoll feared that, having met up with their classmates, these same social entrepreneurs might head off to Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. “But quite the opposite happened,” he says. “They started to get their classmates interested in social progress, and some of the people who had been planning to go back to McKinsey or Goldman or whatever, have gone off on a different path and got involved with social enterprise.” This rejection of conventional career paths is understandable in the wake of the financial crisis, but the trend was already quite well established.

The business architect of Ebay has doubts about modern business. “I think we’ve entered an interesting window where people have looked at the old model and have realised it just really hasn’t worked that well,” he says. “We’re on a path of huge consumption with the huge risk of debt and the over-use of resources in the world and, as you know, all these terrible world problems like climate change and water scarcity and so on just catching up with us quickly. And the market’s not really factoring that in ... So it’s a good time for social entrepreneurs in this world to be looking at new models.”

Skoll has explained all this fluently and at some length. He is clearly proud of his work. I don’t interrupt, partly because describing it all is helping him to relax, and partly because he appears to have a selection of ready-made answers which he is going to give in any case. I wouldn’t have said that he is enjoying the business of being interviewed all that much. Rather, he counters with the occasional polite inquiry, turning the tables and helping to keep up the illusion that a natural conversation is taking place. The effect is slightly unnerving. And he has only got through about one-third of his soup and half his sandwich. My plate is empty.

Changing the world through business is one of Skoll’s two main activities. The other is his film company, Participant Media, which aims to change the world through movies. Founded in 2004, Participant aims to produce “quality entertainment about meaningful issues”. Its notable hits have included Good Night and Good Luck (2005), directed by George Clooney, and the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which turned former US vice-president Al Gore into an unlikely movie star.

Participant allows Skoll to pursue social and political causes through a mass medium. From modest beginnings the company (which Skoll chairs, supported by a team of executives) is now a serious player, producing 17 films in the past four years, “and we’ll do at least as many in the next two”, he says. Food, Inc is a new documentary about industrial food production; Oceans is an exploration of aquatic life under threat. The current release The Soloist is one of theirs too.

There are principles involved here too. “Every film we do has to deal with an important issue in the world that affects a lot of people,” he explains. “The film could be a catalyst to make change. And it has to be enough change that it would be better than just giving the money to an NGO to do the work.”

But people don’t go to the cinema to be lectured, surely? Even Gore’s documentary broke up the material with informal moments and behind-the-scenes shots. “It has to be entertaining or people aren’t going to watch it,” Skoll agrees, “so you have to start with a good story well told and then the message has to kind of come along with that person.

“Everything that I have been doing has really kind of gone back to that vision that I had as a kid when I used to read a lot of books [George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, James Clavell and James Michener were favourites]. By the time I was a teenager I had a world view that the future might not be a very pleasant place. There would be overpopulation and terrible wars and diseases.”

Sounds like he was a pretty angsty kid. “I really thought what I would do is be a writer. I wanted to write stories that would get people interested in the big issues ... My goal was to get to a point where I could afford to write those stories. That’s how I ended up down an entrepreneurial path. When Ebay happened, all of a sudden there was more than just writing. I realised I could find writers and do movies and TV and other forms of media, and that became the vision: to create a media company around the public interest.”

Skoll has been left a little bemused by some of his movie-making experiences. He felt a documentary about the global social impact of Sesame Street (The World According to Sesame Street, 2005) was bound to be a smash – it wasn’t – while the success of Gore’s extended slideshow took everybody by surprise. What also surprised him was that so many of the actors, writers, agents and producers he has come into contact with have often turned out to have secret pet projects about which they care deeply, but have no realistic hope of ever getting made. Now he is being sent 4,000 scripts a year. “The trick is finding something that is really dealing with an important issue. There’s a creative part, there’s the commercial part and there’s the social part. And making sure all of that is working.”

We have bonded reasonably well over the lunch table. Emboldened, over coffee I unwisely attempt to mother him a bit. So, still not married, I exclaim. “Well, I’ve been single for a few months,” Skoll replies gently. “I was in a long relationship. No longer.”

The ordeal over – his, I mean – he gets up looking relieved, and heads back to his conference, where, of course, Skoll is the (reserved) star of the show, and where everybody wants a piece of him.

He will keep betting on good people doing good things. Keep on being the shy guy who got rich beyond belief then tried to help those who bring clean water to people who don’t have it, or who provide educational opportunities to people who would otherwise be denied them. In all probability, Jeff Skoll’s life will keep on being a bit like the plot of one of his movies – how does The Accidental Billionaire sound as a title?

Stefan Stern writes a weekly column on management for the FT

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The Jam Factory
Frank Cooper Marmalade building, Oxford

Mineral water £2
Ginger beer £2.50
‘Quicky’ lunch offer x 2 £10
Decaf cappuccino £2.60
Espresso £1.20

Total (including service) £21

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Nigel Andrews on cinema with a social conscience

PC or not PC, that is the question. Hamlet said it first – or almost said it – and conscience has made cash cows of filmmakers ever since. A good liberal-minded “issues” movie, or one that puts pep rather than piety into political correctness, can fill that delicate space between art and populism. It can fill cinemas too, if the director finds the right blend of storytelling and sermonising. From Dances with Wolves (1990) to Syriana (2005) (on interracial understanding), from On the Beach (1959) to An Inconvenient Truth (2006) (on our endangered planet), from the Mahatma-acclaiming Gandhi (1982) to the McCarthy-vilifying Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), cinema has spent decades teaching us right thinking, or trying to.

 
George Clooney as he stars in 'Good Night and Good Luck'

Clooney: ‘Good Night and Good Luck’

That three of those films were directed by actors makes a point about screen liberalism, at least in Hollywood: it is part of the face US cinema likes to present to the world. Since the 1960s, for the likes of Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Kevin Costner, it has been a vital charisma component. And carrying their message behind the camera, the last three won Oscars for directing hit movies about man’s humanity or courage and defiance at times of challenge: Beatty’s Reds (1981); Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990); even Redford’s Ordinary People (1980).

Today George Clooney has taken over the glamorous-radical franchise, finding time for politically engaged movies when not moonlighting as a UN spokesman on Darfur. Before Clooney, actor-director Tim Robbins established himself as a leftist messiah, his film Bob Roberts (1992) combining an old-fashioned liberal attack on political PR – echoing The Candidate (1972) – with some prophetic pre-Bush hints about the ease with which an ill-equipped contender can attain high office.

Yet the star of today’s social-conscience cinema is not the actor turned auteur but the hot-issue documentary-maker from almost any source. These films are flying out at us – An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Eleventh Hour (2006), Age of Stupid (2009) and, this week, The End of the Line (Armageddon comes to the fishing industry) – with a popularity that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. Back then “documentary” meant “death at the box office”.

The only explanation for the success of these serious, starless films is that we have become issue-literate; or that we have realised – a giant leap for movie-kind – that these matters are called “matters” because they matter. To us; to our families; to our future; as well as, happily and amazingly, to the prosperity of the film industry.

Nigel Andrews is the FT’s film critic

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