AIB Featured Business Leader – Pierre Omidyar
Born in Paris in 1967, Pierre Omidyar’s love affair with computers flourished early. He spent his teenage years sneaking out of physical education classes to play in the computer labs instead, and naturally went on to complete a degree in Computer Science at Tufts University in 1988.
Entrepreneurial from the beginning, Pierre Omidyar was writing his own programs as soon as he was able. In 1991, he and three friends founded a start-up company to write programs for the pen-computing market, setting up an e-commerce site for the company. These were the very early days of the Internet, and pen computing proved a flop, but Omidyar simply moved on. In 1994, while working as a software developer for General Magic, Omidyar set up an online auction service on his personal Web page. An oft-repeated story has it that Omidyar’s inspiration was his future wife, who wanted to buy Pez dispensers, but in fact his interest in an online selling service was already there and the story later came from a publicist. Once the kinks were worked out, Omidyar launched the site as a separate entity on 4 September 1995. Initially called Auction Web, the site was nicknamed ‘eBay’ for ‘electronic Bay’ which referred to the San Francisco Bay Area.
At first, eBay was a magnet for collectors and people looking for obscure items they couldn’t easily find elsewhere. The first item bought was a broken laser pointer, bought by someone who collected broken laser pointers, and the rest was history. A year later, eBay had facilitated 250,000 online auctions, and by January 1997, it had hosted two million. Realising that he was onto something big, Omidyar hired his friend Jeffrey Skoll as eBay’s first president, and the two made it their full-time jobs to improve the eBay community and technology. They secured venture capital and brought on Margaret Whitham as eBay’s first CEO. eBay became leaner and sleeker with age-restricted sub-sites and a new marketing division to raise awareness.
In September 1998, three years after its launch, eBay made its initial public offering and made both Omidyar and Skoll billionaires. The company has performed strongly ever since, acquiring PayPal in 2002 and creating new categories of auction as well as new opportunities for sellers. Today, eBay isn’t just an auction site: 80% of products sold through the eBay site are new. It has materially affected how sellers operate in the online space, providing new outlets for people who would otherwise struggle to break in, but tying that boom to PayPal to ensure extra revenue.
While Omidyar retains major shareholder status in eBay (he owns more shares than any other single shareholder at 8%), his focus has shifted since those first heady days. In 2004, Omidyar and his wife Pamela established the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic organisation that invests in innovative organisations to effect economic, social and political change. In 2010, in conjunction with Richard Branson and the Nduna Foundation, Omidyar established Enterprise Zimbabwe. They have donated $115 million to anti-human trafficking foundation Humanity United amongst numerous other enterprises. In fact, by 2011 they had donated over $1billion to philanthropic ventures, earning them the Carnegie Medal for Philanthropy Award.
In 2013 Omidyar turned that philanthropic focus even closer to home when the Edward Snowden leaks and wiretapping activities inspired him to bankroll investigative journalism in the U.S. “I’m a technologist by origin and by training, but I’m focused on philanthropy” he told the New York Times before establishing First Look Media with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. First Look is an independent media outlet whose mission is to “bring transparency and accountability to powerful governmental and corporate institutions”.
Together with their three children, Omidyar and his wife Pamela Wesley live in Hawaii and control various resort properties in Southern California and Mexico. Forbes estimates his net worth at $8.1 billion. He prefers to stay under the radar, but he remains firmly committed to using his influence for the greater good. “Long-term sustainable change happens if people discover their own power.” he once told Businessweek, and his own life stands as testament to that belief.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Academy of Achievement; Relevance; Forbes; Huffington Post; Biography; Bloomberg