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From billionaire to movie mogul

Ebay cofounder Jeff Skoll opens his TED talk with a very funny series of slides, showing him waiting by the phone for TED’s phonecall for the past few years. “Finally I get the call and I end up behind JJ Abrahms,” pointing out that TED’s got an evil sense of humor. Indeed, Chris Anderson introduces Skoll by pointing out that the story of “dotcom billionare goes to Hollywood to make movies” sounds like a good outline for a comedy. But it is Skoll’s story.

After an abbreviated version of his entrepreneurial life story, Skoll talks about the shock of moving from sharing a house with five roommates and eating their leftovers to being incredibly rich. He turned to John Gardner for advice and was told “Bet on good people doing good things.” So the Skoll Foundation has started supporting extraordinary social entrepreneurs, people who use the tools of business to solve social problems, like Mohammed Yunus, Ann Cotton’s education project CAMFED International, and Victoria Hale’s OneWorld Health, which is producing a drug to combat black fever.

The philosophy of the Skoll Foundation is to invest, connect and celebrate their projects. Focusing on the ability to celebrate and amplify projects, Skoll began a film corporation, knowing the warnings that the surest way to become a millionare was to be a billionaire making films in Hollywood. The goal was to create inspiring films in the vein of Gahndi and Schindler’s List.

Participant Productions has been an amazing success – their first year, they produced Murderball, Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck, which combined for 11 oscar nominations. A film that wasn’t critically acclaimed, North Country, helped ensure the 2005 renewal of the 1998 Violence Against Women Act, Skoll tells us.

This year was even more impressive – Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth might have gone “straight to PBS”, but ended up captivating audiences around the world. Forthcoming is Charlie Wison’s War, a story about US funding of the Taliban in Afghanistan. There’s talk about a film about Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Ten, and a film from Jimmy Carter’s book about Israel and Palestine.

He ends with some hopeful slides from the future – magazine covers featuring the last barrel of important oil, of snow returning to Kilimanjaro and an ebay ad for Al Gore’s well-used but obsolete slide show.