Participant Media, the production powerhouse behind films including "Waiting for Superman," "An Inconvenient Truth," "Good Night and Good Luck," and "Charlie Wilson's War," bills itself as a company that "exists to tell compelling, entertaining stories that also create awareness of the real issues that shape our lives."
It is hard to overstate the impact that some of these movies have had on the popular conversation. "An Inconvenient Truth" -- and its star, Al Gore -- were largely credited with making global warming a topic of national concern, while "Waiting for Superman" has sparked a fierce national debate over education reform in America.
The mastermind behind Participant is a Canadian named Jeff Skoll, a man whose accomplishments and vast financial holdings seem almost incongruous, given his preternaturally unassuming manner. Said Jim Berk, Participant's CEO: "If you put fifty people in a room and asked someone to find the billionaire, you'd get to the 46th or 47th person before you'd point to Jeff."
Skoll, 46, came into great wealth as the first employee and president of eBay, the online auction site created by his Stanford business school pal Pierre Omidyar. Having made an estimated $2 billion from the sale of his eBay stock, Skoll remains humble about the endeavor. When Omidyar first approached him with the project, Skoll said, "My first reaction was, 'Pierre, this is a really stupid idea.'"
But if Skoll helped to fundamentally change the commerce industry during his time at eBay, business was never his driving goal in life. "I read a lot of books when I was younger," Skoll said, "and it struck me that the world of the future might be a pretty scary place with terrible new weapons, new wars, new diseases."
When Skoll was 14, his father announced that he had cancer "and it didn't look good," said Skoll. He recalled the thing that struck him -- and that seems to have stayed with him to this day -- was his father's admission that "he hadn't done the things he had wanted to with his life."
For Skoll, this existential and environmental angst from his younger years has translated into an extremely focused drive to make a difference in the world by tackling global problems, including the environment, health, human rights, institutional responsibility, world affairs, and social and economic equity. "It's a lot to keep on top of," Skoll says, in what is clearly an understatement.
But what sets Skoll apart from other ambitious do-gooders is that he not only has the resources necessary to positively affect the global landscape, but he is going about it in a fairly groundbreaking fashion. Alongside Participant's issues-based media, Skoll has created the Skoll Foundation, a grant-making organization that gives away nearly $45 million a year in support of social entrepreneurs tackling pressing global concerns; the Skoll World Forum, a yearly convention of 800 of the brightest lights in academia, finance, business and non-profits to discuss matters of world import; and the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a $115 million fund which aims, ambitiously, to safeguard humanity from global threats -- among them, pandemics, water scarcity, nuclear proliferation and Middle East conflict.
Though each of the Skoll properties have discreet projects and mandates, all of them work in pursuit of Skoll's vision, which is "To create a sustainable world of peace and prosperity," according to Sally Osberg, the president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation.
The Skoll Global Threats Fund makes grants to a variety of organizations, from those studying disease networks in the Mekong Delta to advocacy groups working on a two-state solution in Israel. Dr. Larry Brilliant, a seasoned expert in global health concerns and the president of the Global Threats Fund, conceded that "It's preposterous and eye-rolling to say you're going to build an organization that not only goes after pandemics and water shortages but says, let's throw in Middle East peace, too!"
Yet Brilliant highlighted the way Skoll is "using all the resources at his disposal," citing "Contagion" an upcoming film about a fast-moving pandemic that stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Matt Damon, as an example. "[It's a] Participant funded movie, Skoll Global Threats provided the epidemiological expertise, Stephen Soderberg directed it and now it's being released by Warner Brothers," said Brilliant. "That's what sets [Skoll] apart from other organizations. We could have made a grant, but to whom? To do what?"
As further evidence of how Skoll is able to leverage the expertise and resources across his properties, Osberg pointed to Riders for Health, an organization that manages and maintains motorcycles that provide access to health services across Africa. "They came into the Skoll portfolio in 2005," Osberg explained. "We made a deposit in the Bank of Gambia so the Riders could buy a fleet of motorcycles and bikes to provide one hundred percent coverage in the country. Then we produced a segment about them, which aired on the BBC. The Riders used the video to demonstrate their efficacy and in nine days, they signed a contract with the government of Zambia -- a process that typically takes two years. We helped accelerate that."
While working in tandem with governments was not initially part of Skoll's game plan, both he and Osberg said they have since come to understand the limitations of working solely outside of it. "For a long time, I was pretty naïve about this, thinking entrepreneurs would move faster. But I realize now that we're in this together," said Osberg. "Social entrepreneurs can innovate on the margins. But unless government embraces reforms, you don't get change."
Skoll surmised that his Canadian upbringing explained, in part, his initial lack of interest in pursuing change at the governmental level. "I never had a feeling for government and its role -- it's not as in your face in Canada," he said. "My motivations were much more grassroots." He said that it was working on the 2005 film "North Country," in which Charlize Theron plays a miner who faces harassment on the job, that made him first realize the importance of targeting the political class.
The film's release was timed around the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act and screenings of the movie were held on Capitol Hill. "We were told that many [members] of Congress who attended screenings learned from film and decided to vote for the renewal of the act," Skoll said. "[That] led to a much longer history working with the government, because I think real progress comes when you have collaboration between the private, public and policy sectors."
As Skoll's organizations have begun working in both the public and private arenas, technology has helped expand their reach. By way of an example, Berk rattled off a list of areas where he expects Participant's role to expand: "There's enormous growth potential in TV distribution, production, digital platform content production. Cause marketing services, books, live concerts, social action networks. Local language programming in Europe, Asia, the Middle East. We have aspirations that Participant get involved on every continent."
Remembering their first meeting, Berk said Skoll told him he thought Participant might one day have a bigger impact than eBay. "I smiled and said, 'That's nice,'" Berk recalled. "But ten or fifteen minutes later I was thinking, 'This guy is serious. This is real.' This was someone saying, 'I'm going to spend my life and money changing the world.'"
While Skoll admitted to spending extensive amounts of time keeping up on the world's problems, reading international news on his iPad, many of his associates said that it is often firsthand experience that compels Skoll to pursue an issue.
Osberg recalled traveling to the Amazon with him, meeting with tribal chieftains and social entrepreneurs. "We were learning about deforestation by seeing it, understanding the drivers," she said. Brilliant remembered a trip to India: "We went for 2 weeks. I took him to an ashram, to villages with polio. He gotit. He saw the effects of climate change on the Himalayas, saw the effects of water on polio, and he started thinking about these things. It contributed to the way he thinks about global threats."
Skoll, for his part, said he believes that climate change remains the most underappreciated and pressing global concern. "It's the great exacerbator of so many other things," he said. "It will ultimately drive so many terrible dynamics in the world that we need to get a handle on this one today."
For the producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," it's perhaps bitter medicine that the subject of global warming -- once widely discussed, with comprehensive energy reform within reach -- has been eclipsed lately by other topics the American public regards as more pressing. A 2010 Gallup poll found that 48% of Americans thought the seriousness of global warming was "greatly exaggerated."
When asked about it, Skoll focused on the positive: "In the year before 'An Inconvenient Truth,' 33% of Americans thought global warming was a real issue. In year after it, 85% thought it was a real issue. The dynamic changed," he said. "It's since slipped -- which reinforces the notion that you can't just get involved in an issue at a point in time and let it lie. You need to be continually working to advance the ball."
Skoll said that while there were many complexities involved with combating climate change in various parts of the world, "the cause is not dead. There are many positive signs in the U.S. Some of it is happening at the state level, some of it is happening at the local level."
Then he added, in a typically understated fashion: "Dealing with big world issues is hard work."
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