EBay founder a philanthropic powerhouse – USAToday

Written by Patrick Fisher February 14, 2012 0 comment

By Jon Swartz, USA TODAY

  • WASHINGTON – Somewhere between his treatise on government transparency and soliloquy on human rights, Pierre Omidyar paused.
  • EBay founder Pierre Omidyar.H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

    EBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

EBay’s billionaire founder and proponent of good works was addressing a roomful of White House Fellows in a closed-door question-and-answer session last month, hours before President Obama’s State of the Union address, when a query stumped him: What do you hope to accomplish the rest of your life?

Omidyar, 44, looked down, contemplatively, then fixed his eyes on the questioner. “We live a comfortable life, but relationships are what make a life rich,” he said. Omidyar, a member of the president’s Commission on White House Fellowships, touched on a mix of causes that include media democracy, education and the difference between charity (“a quick solution”) and philanthropy (“systemic changes to long-term problems”).

The group of White House Fellows, younger men and women picked to work at the highest levels of the federal government, seemed mesmerized.

To date, Pierre and wife Pam have committed more than $1 billion to hundreds of causes through individual gifts and four organizations they created —Omidyar Network, Humanity United, HopeLab and Ulupono (Hawaiian for “doing the right thing”) Initiative. Pam Omidyar is from Hawaii.

About Pierre Omidyar

Age: 44

Title: eBay founder and philanthropist

Education: Bachelor’s in computer science, Tufts University

Family: Wife Pam and three children

Estimated personal fortune: $6.2 billion

Hometown: Honolulu

Hobbies: Thinking and reading. “You get a lot of great insight from unexpected sources in the world,” says Omidyar, who often hangs out among the staff at the Civil Beat office in Honolulu, absorbing the ideas and opinions of everyone.

Early tech love: As a kid, he was fascinated by calculators. At the Potomac School in Maryland, he taught himself how to program in Basic and during school hours often snuck into the closet to play with computer programs.

On risk-taking: “You have to have inner strength, you have to believe that you will be successful, take willful denial.”

Omidyar founded eBay in September 1995. He has been a director and chairman of the board since eBay’s incorporation in May 1996. He has also served as eBay’s CEO, chief financial officer and president.

The couple has found time to fashion Civil Beat, an investigative online news organization started in Hawaii fixed on local issues, and the forthcoming emerging leaders program in Hawaii patterned after the White House Fellows.

“He is the new face of philanthropy,” says former president Bill Clinton, who has known the Omidyars for more than a decade. “He and Pam live and give to their core values.” Adds eBay CEO John Donahoe: “In his quiet way, he has enormous impact on the world.”

But for Omidyar, Silicon Valley legend-turned-philanthropist, life can be sublime amid the charitable endeavors and good works. He’s been largely quiet for a decade, giving an occasional interview while living in relative seclusion in Hawaii. He dropped out of sight to oversee charity after charity. Why talk now? To fill the world in on how his organization has learned to create philanthropic teams that bring long-term change. He also weighed in on the toxic political discourse: “It has declined dramatically, a complete failure of leadership,” he said over a vegetarian dinner the night before the Q&A session.

Dario Cantatore, Getty Images

EBay founder Pierre Omidyar, 44, and his wife, Pam, have committed more than $1 billion to hundreds of different causes.

Despite pleas from candidates, Omidyar (pronounced O-mid-e-are) stopped making political donations in 2008. Instead, he works with elected Democrats and Republicans to effect change, including a project with the Obama administration to reduce human trafficking. “I work with officeholders, not candidates,” he says.

“I’m worried about the American Dream,” says Omidyar, who immigrated to the U.S. from France in the 1970s. “Think of the best and brightest who came here,” he says, listing founders of Google (Sergey Brin, Russia) and Yahoo (Jerry Yang, Taiwan).

A self-confessed data junkie who dives into numbers and analyzes them, Omidyar remains vigilantly engaged at eBay. As its chairman and largest shareholder, he attends four board meetings a year. He also chimes in when change is necessary. Omidyar, a trained engineer, inspired a major move to technology in the post-Meg Whitman era, with the appointment of Donahoe as CEO to replace her and the additions of Chief Technology Officer Mark Carges and board member Marc Andreessen. (Whitman, now CEO of Hewlett-Packard, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

“He has real clarity of purpose,” says Donahoe, who met Omidyar seven years ago when he joined eBay. “He believes people are basically good, and (in) the power of the individual, the little guy, to have impact on a global scale.”

Charity nomenclature

The Omidyars’ brand of philanthropy, based loosely on a venture-capital firm’s approach, has been a powerful agent for social change, as eBay was for commerce.

The Omidyars’ financial gifts often go to charities that follow solid business plans and produce earnings streams that sustain the non-profit work. “Think of it as a portfolio approach to doing social good,” says Mike Mohr, who has been with the Omidyars since eBay went public in 1998, and who serves as strategic adviser to their philanthropic endeavors.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and others consider the reclusive Omidyar a seminal figure in the intersection of philanthropy and technology. “Pierre approaches his philanthropy with an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that we can all learn from,” Gates said in an e-mail. “Pam and Pierre have had incredible impact in financial services and provided much needed investment in global health.”

Says Virgin founder Richard Branson: “Pierre is not just providing access to finance, he is also helping to create the right environment for social enterprises and new businesses to thrive.” During research on his latest book, Screw Business as Usual, it became “inspiringly clear” that Omidyar “has been screwing business as usual for years.”

“Pierre has been solving issues by supporting entrepreneurial organizations that are building businesses to solve problems,” Branson says, citing Ushahidi, which developed crowd-sourcing technology. It’s one of about a dozen fields that fall under the Omidyars’ umbrella of good works. “Philanthropy is not just about money,” Omidyar says. “Money matters, but impact matters more.”

It was no surprise, then, that when Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, and others asked some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals in mid-2010 to give at least half their fortunes to charity, Omidyar was among the first to say yes. Buffett also got OKs from Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Silicon Valley venture-capital titan John Doerr.

An instant billionaire

Omidyar was 31 when he became a billionaire overnight on Labor Day 1998, three years after writing the code for what would become eBay. The company went public and he became in his words, “ridiculous rich.” By mid-1999, he was worth $7.8 billion. (His estimated personal worth is $6.2 billion, ranking him the 145th-richest person in the world, as of September 2011, according to Forbes.)

Yet, he’s remained an unlikely billionaire, avoiding the trappings usually associated with the ultra-rich. “It reached a point where I could not only buy any car, but literally every car,” Omidyar says. “In the end, I didn’t want any cars.” Pam drives a minivan; Pierre, a Prius. They and their children live in a modest home in Honolulu.

Omidyar had a gnawing unease about accumulating so much money so quickly and easily. While he mulled what to do, he considered how eBay gave people a platform to become successful entrepreneurs. Why not, he concluded, take his business concept and apply it to charitable giving?

The eBay Foundation started in June 1998 after Yahoo co-founder Yang held an outdoor event where he beseeched the importance of giving. “Back then, there were no examples of young entrepreneurs (in philanthropy),” Omidyar says.

Friends and colleagues marvel at the Omidyars’ humility, generosity and intellect.

“Two of the most grounded, down-to-earth people you will ever meet,” says Larry Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts. “There is no way you can imagine the achievement and wealth they have accumulated. For them, it’s about addressing problems at their root cause, creating an engaged population.”

One of the biggest beneficiaries has been Tufts, the Boston-based college where Pam, who declined to be interviewed, and Pierre met. It has received upwards of $160 million from them. But only an endowed chair bears the Omidyar name.

“They are incredibly low-key, nice, quiet people,” says Cheryl Dorsey, vice chair of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships and president of Echoing Green, a social-entrepreneurship organization. “They are very approachable despite the trappings of incredible success.”

The soft-spoken billionaire is making plenty of noise globally, says a business and philanthropy contemporary.

“As a philanthropist, Pierre is tackling the biggest problems in the world, and … his efforts may take many years to show their full results,” says former eBay president Jeff Skoll, an Oscar-nominated producer (The Help). The Skoll Foundation, which has given more than $300 million in grants, has worked with the Omidyar Network on, among other things, Landesa, which helps small rural farmers secure land rights. “But make no mistake, Pierre is dedicated to social change and he will, deservedly, someday be acknowledged as the Rockefeller or Carnegie of our times.”

“They don’t care if they get the credit,” Clinton says of the Omidyars. “In the end, it is all about results.”