First, some disclosure. I hold the Jeffrey S. Skoll Chair in Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship here at the Rotman School of Management. Jeff Skoll [picture to the left from the Globe and Mail] endowed the Chair some years back and I’m the third person to hold it. So I am very grateful for that contribution to the University of Toronto as it is very unlikely I would have had the opportunity to move here without it.
Because of that I have taken an interest in the activities of my Chair’s benefactor. Jeff Skoll was one of the co-founders of eBay and its first president. He pursued that right after graduating from Stanford with an MBA; we overlapped there but never, to my knowledge, met. That said, I do recall meeting random graduate students who thought that using the Internet to run auctions would be a good idea and as a diligent economist I suggested that if that was an obviously good thing to do someone would have done it. And that was that. Apparently, Skoll had a similar reaction but went with it anyway. The upshot of all this is that he is endowing Chairs and I am holding one.
This week, Canada honored Skoll with the Order of Canada. This was not for his entrepreneurship in successfully establishing eBay — although surely that would be worth a celebration — but instead for what he has done since leaving eBay in 2001. Basically, Skoll has already given half of his fortune away. Endowed chairs are a drop in the ocean compared to a huge list of activities. You can read about those here. His work includes the Skoll Foundation that is doing an incredible amount of work in funding socially beneficial technology in developing countries. He has set up a fund to tackle global threats such as water scarcity and nuclear proliferation. And he has engaged in media activities to fund movies with a social message. That latter venture is supposed to be part of giving money away but movies such An Inconvenient Truth and The Help are going to make that part of the mission a challenging one.
In a world where so many of my fellow academics hold Chairs whose funders move into scandal and, face planting embarrassment, it is wonderful to be in a position to celebrate someone’s achievements were their contribution to their old University ranks well at the bottom of their philanthropic achievements.