• News

Jeff Skoll honored at Tech Awards Gala

By John Boudreau San Jose Mercury News Posted: 10/21/2011 07:37:31 AM PDT Updated: 10/21/2011 07:37:36 AM PDT Jeff Skoll — entrepreneur, philanthropist and Hollywood producer — was honored Thursday night as this year’s global humanitarian at Tech Awards Gala, one of Silicon Valley’s pre-eminent social gatherings. For a few hours, hundreds of Silicon Valley tech leaders focused on those who devote their lives to change-the-world business models and technologies to ensure doctors in Africa have solar-powered lights to conduct surgeries, enable impoverished villages in India to access safe drinking water and provide durable desks for African students. Skoll’s work in media and with his foundation in many ways embodies the spirit of the annual awards ceremony, which brings together social entrepreneurs from around the globe for a week that is part celebration and part workshop on how to hone business models and network to find partners and funders. Fifteen entrepreneurs and organizations from around the globe were honored and five received cash prizes of $50,000 each. “Gathered in this room tonight is the true heart of technology — scientists, engineers, technologists and entrepreneurs who use technology to tackle humanity’s big challenges,” Skoll said during his speech at the Santa Clara Convention Center. eBay’s first president, Skoll also is the founder of a philanthropic foundation and Participant Media, which has released more than 35 movies that aim to both entertain and create social change. “Tonight is a celebration of these uncommon heroes, their organizations and the millions of lives enriched by their innovations.” Hundreds of Silicon Valley luminaries, decked in their finest formal wear, gathered to recognize the honorees in a ceremony hosted by Liz Claman, a Fox Business News anchor. The genesis of the awards ceremony, which also serves as a fundraiser for the downtown San Jose Tech Museum, was the 1990s United Nations study, “The State of the Future at the Millennium,” which focused on challenges facing the planet and the importance of assisting the developing world. The museum has since highlighted the work of hundreds of global entrepreneurs, academics and nonprofit workers using technology and innovative business plans to improve the lives of millions. And the museum every year spotlights the accomplishments of towering figures such as Skoll with the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award. Previous humanitarian winners include former Vice President Al Gore, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, Jordan’s Queen Rania and Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of microcredit and founder of the Grameen Bank. In his speech, Skoll said, “The promise of technology has fueled my work in the social sector, in commercial investing and in the media.” Many of the organizations his foundation supports, he added, use technology, such as deploying GPS-enabled mapping technology to protect the Amazon rain forest and using solar engineering to enable economic development in the world’s poorest communities. As a philanthropist, Skoll, at age 46, has already given away a billion dollars. His film company, Participant Media, which launched seven years ago, produces films that regularly garner Academy Award nominations. Two of Participant’s recent movies, “Contagion,” about a lethal airborne virus that kills within days, and “The Help,” which explores the interracial friendships of a small group of women in Mississippi in the 1960s, were box-office successes. Participant is now exploring creating television shows, he said. In 2009, Skoll founded the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which supports initiatives focused on climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and the Middle East conflict. The fund is led by Larry Brilliant, former executive director of Google.org. Skoll also created his own private wealth-management firm, Capricorn, which makes socially conscious investments in companies such as the manufacturer of installed water-free urinals. And Skoll has joined the Bill Gates and Warren Buffett Giving Pledge to eventually give away most of his wealth. “Everything that I do deals with trying to solve the bigger issues in the world, ranging from climate change and nuclear weapons to women’s education, homelessness, preservation of species,” he said in an interview. While many of these problems can seem intractable, Skoll sees no alternative to addressing them head-on. “I think you have to be optimistic,” he said. “There isn’t a better choice. I think the problems in the world, if anything, have gotten worse. But at the same time, we now have more tools to deal with them.” In 1998, Skoll pioneered the use of pre-IPO stock to launch a foundation when he helped create the eBay Foundation. A year later, he started the Skoll Foundation, now based in Palo Alto, which aims to promote “a sustainable world of peace and prosperity” by backing such groups as Partners in Health, which provides world-class medical care to patients living in poverty from Haiti to Rwanda, and Tostan, which delivers education programs for adults and adolescents in Africa. “We focus precious resources to where the needs are greatest and the opportunities to create positive impact are the greatest,” said Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation. “We don’t go where there is a great idea but it doesn’t have enormous potential. This is straight from Jeff.” Likewise, the 15 social entrepreneurs invited to Silicon Valley aren’t interested in incremental change in the world. “We are transforming the way students learn science,” said Kathy Perkins, director of PhET Interactive Simulations. Her organization, based at the University of Colorado, Boulder, received one of the $50,000 awards for creating online interactive simulators in 64 different languages that provide a visual way to learn science. Dr. Laura Stachel also won a cash award for her Berkeley-based organization, We Care Solar, which makes suitcase kits that provide lighting for developing world medical units that don’t have electricity. “It’s the difference between life and death for people who need surgery but who can’t get it because there is no reliable light,” she said. Skoll believes it is incumbent for those who are wealthy like himself to put their assets to work solving the world’s problems. On Sunday, he and Buffett hosted a dinner for 10 Los Angeles-based billionaires to encourage them to use their wealth for philanthropy. “When you think about it, there are only so many people in the world who have the resources, the time and inclination to do something about these issues,” Skoll said. “Most people are just worried about keeping their jobs, getting their kids to school. They can do things in little ways. But there are some of us who can do things in a more profound way. “The world is a big and complicated place,” he said. “I feel lucky to be in a position in which I can actually do something about it.” http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_19162429