“Blessed To Be A Blessing”
Pierre believes that one of the reasons you become blessed with material wealth is so you can be a conduit to share that wealth with others. Indeed, Pierre has become an amazing conduit through his work with the “Omidyar Group,” an alliance of organizations that focus on addressing particular societal problems (such as disease for “HopeLab,” poverty for “Humanity United,” lack of business opportunities for “Omidyar Network,” and much more). Pierre has truly become a beacon of hope for millions around the world who need help.
Of all the issues that Pierre has worked to resolve, he seems to have taken a special interest in freedom of the press. For Pierre, it is essential that people know what their government is doing, and he applies what he has learned as a technologist to serve the public. As he says in an interview:
“I’m a technologist by origin and by training, but I’m focused on philanthropy. One of the key areas was taking the lessons from technology and applying them to making the world better. And part of that interest really led me to government transparency and accountability: how do we explain to a broad audience what government is doing?”
A remarkable genius of technology, Pierre turned something as simple as auctioning into one of the biggest online activities in the world today. To date, “eBay,” Pierre’s creation, is one of the world’s largest websites and serves hundreds of millions of users. Pierre is hailed as one of the pioneers of the internet, and is among those who greatly contributed to its rise in popularity.
As a technologist, Pierre believes in the role of technologists in changing the world. He has seen what the internet revolution has created, and he was among those who saw its great potential early on, during its infancy. Pierre stated in an interview:
“Technologists come at a problem from the point of view that the system is working a certain way and if I engage in that system and actually change the rules of the system, I can make it work a different way. If you think about what did Google do, what did Facebook do, what did Twitter do, what did eBay do, they all created systems that changed the way the world works at a very large scale. And I would hypothesize that perhaps some of the interest in media simply reflects a desire to be engaged in the world.”
It comes as no surprise how Pierre grew up as a prodigy, being born into a skilled and intellectual family. Pierre was born in 1967 in Paris, France, to native-Iranian parents who were sent by his grandparents to France to attend university. His father studied medicine, while his mother studied linguistics before becoming a well-known academician.
Because of his parents’ accomplishments, Pierre grew up living a comfortable life with everything he needed. However, not all was well, as his parents had separated due to irreconcilable differences when he was only a few years old. Pierre lived with his mother, but his father always made time for him, as well, and was part of many of Pierre’s fondest childhood memories.
Despite the separation, his parents remained friends and continued to spend time together. When Pierre was asked in an interview about his inspirations, he answered:
“I think it's both my mom and my dad. They were separated when I was two, I think, but my dad was always part of my life. I lived with my mom, but my dad was always around. I remember when I was younger spending weekends with my dad, who is a surgeon and a medical doctor, doing rounds with him. We would spend maybe 45 minutes in the car going from one hospital to the next and we'd have some great conversations. That's one of my fond childhood memories.”
Moving to the United States
When Pierre was six years old, he moved with his family to the United States and settled in Maryland after his father accepted a job as a Resident Physician at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center.
Even at a young age, Pierre demonstrated remarkable intellect and brightness that set him above his peers. During his elementary years at The Potomac School in Virginia, Pierre was considered to be among the best students – not only in his class, but in the entire school. His favorite subjects were those related to science and mathematics, which helped cultivate his interest in computers later on.
First Contact: Pierre’s Interest in Computers
Pierre developed an interest in computers during the third grade. The 1970s saw a new age of computer manufacturing and the introduction of integrated circuits, and this caught the attention of the young Pierre, who anticipated the computer’s vast potential. Pierre graduated from elementary and high school (studying at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Maryland) with high marks.
Pierre recalled when his interest in computers first came about:
“I've always been into the gadgets and I guess when I first saw a computer—I'm trying to think if it was third—it might have been third grade... And I used to actually cut gym and sneak into the computer room—which wasn't really a room, it was a closet where they kept the computer between classes—and played on the computer.”
At fourteen years old, Pierre wrote a computing program that printed catalogue cards, which was used by his high school librarian to sort out the cards that went into the catalogue. This proved to be his debut as an entrepreneur, as he charged six dollars per hour through his invention.
In 1984, right after leaving high school, Pierre enrolled at Tufts University to study computer science. Pierre became even more drawn to the world of computers, as this era saw the introduction of microprocessors, which revolutionized computer construction. Pierre’s programming skills improved so rapidly that he earned his Bachelor’s degree by 1988.
Most people think of Pierre as someone who excelled all through college, but he himself admits he was average back then. He said this in an interview:
“I was one of these guys that didn't really study, so I don't think I was a good student. I am very proud to say that I graduated from Tufts University with better than a 3.0 average. It was actually 3.01. During my entire four years there at Tufts my GPA improved every single semester, which gives you an idea of where I started. No, I was not a good student.”
Right after finishing college, Pierre started working for “Claris,” an Apple subsidiary that developed software for the Macintosh computer. Pierre was involved in the development of the “MacDraw” (Macintosh’s imaging software) into the “MacDraw II.” He worked with Claris for three years before leaving to establish his own company.
The 1990s saw many revolutionary inventions – best of all, the then-infant cyberspace now known as the “Internet.” While the internet had not yet attracted people’s attention, primarily because of the costly price of computers, Pierre saw the internet as something that would revolutionize computers overall.
Establishing His Own Company
In 1991, Pierre left his job at Claris to focus on building his business career. With help from a few friends, Pierre established “Ink Development,” a company which developed computer software and built pen-based computing devices. As the company’s Software Engineer, Pierre helped create an Internet shopping segment and played a key role in its software development. Ink Development, which was re-named “eShop,” was later acquired by Microsoft in 1996.
It was around this time when Pierre met Pamela Wesley, a graduate student of biology. The two took a liking to each other and started dating; Pamela went on to become a Management Consultant, which Pierre supported every step of the way.
The love of his life
Living with Pamela in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pierre had everything he needed: a comfortable routine, a happy marriage and a good job – he had a successful career as a Developer Services Engineer for General Magic, a company which developed mobile communication platforms. All was well for Pierre, but a random incident was about to elevate his life and career even further.
The Pez Incident
It all started with “Pez,” the brand of candies and dispensers which Pamela loved to collect. During a dinner in 1995, Pamela expressed her frustration at not being able to locate more Pez collectors, which suddenly gave Pierre an idea: using the internet to find people who had what Pamela needed. This was fuelled further by a meeting with others who also wanted the means to engage in person-to-person auctions of collectible materials. Intrigued by the issue, Pierre began drawing on his previous work experience to find a solution.
And he did. Shortly afterwards, Pierre wrote a page on his personal website called “Auction Web,” which he released to the public on Labor Day weekend of that year. The idea was simple: to enable people from different places to do auctions at the page, and he would simply receive a small portion of the sale to maintain the site. The very first item to be sold on Auction Web was, to Pierre’s surprise, a broken laser pointer, instead of the Pez collectible that his wife had been trying to find. Although he was initially amazed by how someone would spend money for broken stuff, Pierre was soon convinced that what was happening was real.
Expansion and explosion: How “Auction Web” Revolutionized Auctioning
From there, Auction Web simply exploded. Not long after it began, it received so many users that Pierre’s income from the site soon exceeded his salary at General Magic. As a result, he decided to quit his job and focus on improving the website, which was growing at an incredible rate. By 1996, Auction Web had hosted more than 250,000 auctions, a figure which was multiplied eight times in the first month of the following year. In 1997, Pierre invited Jeffrey Skoll, a well-known Canadian engineer and film producer, to join him in his endeavor.
From Auction Web to eBay
In 1997, Pierre changed the name of the website from Auction Web to “eBay” – short for “echobay,” which he claims was one of the first names he wanted for the site. He also began hiring people to help manage the site and business, and his Public Relations Manager would be the one to use the story of Pierre establishing eBay to help Pamela find more Pez dispensers.
The following year, in 1998, Pierre brought in Meg Whitman to be the new CEO and President of eBay, as Pierre wanted the management of the business to be handled by someone with more experience (Meg managed the company for ten years, until her retirement in 2008). Also in 1998, eBay made a huge leap by successfully making a public offering, and launched Pierre’s career to heights he never imagined before.
Like any other company, eBay had its share of struggles. In 1999, the company was plagued by a series of service interruptions; through Pierre’s immediate actions, however, customers managed to hold their reliance. In the midst of the technical issues and customer complaints, Pierre used his technical skills not just to resolve the issue, but also to keep the customers’ loyalty.
More Successes, More Triumphs
In 2002, eBay acquired “PayPal,” an online payment processing company, to use for its customers to transact with one another. With the acquisition of PayPal, eBay began to diversify its range of services, and enabled sellers to create fixed-price sales. Not long after, many large companies began selling their products on eBay in a tradition which continues today.
Giving Back: Pierre’s Philanthropy
In 2004, Pierre and his wife, Pamela, launched the “Omidyar Network,” the philanthropic arm of their career. Consisting of a set of organizations that were aimed at addressing different societal issues [such as sickness, poverty and social injustice], the Omidyar Network became a global philanthropic leader, and Pierre was named as one of the forty richest people in the world to have given more than half of his/her wealth to charity.
Today, Pierre Omidyar continues his work as an online entrepreneur and philanthropist, touching the lives of many through his organizations. As he moves forward, Pierre envisions a future where everyone can be connected to each other, as he believes that people can truly make a better world when they are connected – despite geographic boundaries.
“We have technology, finally, that for the first time in human history allows people to really maintain rich connections with much larger numbers of people. It used to be, your connected group was really your immediate community, your neighborhood, your village, your tribe. The more we connect people, the more people know one another, the better the world will be.”
Companies and Organizations Founded/Worked With
- 1988-1991: Claris
- 1991-1996: eShop (founded as “Ink Development Corporation”)
- 1995 – present: eBay Incorporated
- 1999 – present: Omidyar Foundation
- 2004 – present: Omidyar Network
- 2008 – present: Peer News LLC
- 2010 – present: Honolulu Civil Beat
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Omidyar Network
- Omidyar Foundation
- Ulupono Initiative
- Humanity United
- Alliance for Affordable Internet
- Common Sense Media
- Creative Commons
- Linden Lab
- Wikimedia Foundation
- Global Integrity
- Open Knowledge Foundation
- Enough is Enough Nigeria
- Code for America
- African Media Initiative
- Global Voices
- Refugees United
- Sunlight Foundation
- Aspiring Minds
- Tree House
- Teach for India
- Anudip Foundation
- Akshara Foundation
- LeapFrog Investments
- And Many Others – See Complete List at Omidyar.com
Awards and Achievements
- 1999: Received the “U.S. National Entrepreneur of the Year Award” from Ernst & Young and the “Visionary Award” from the Software Development Forum
- 1999: Named a “Global Leader of Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum
- 2000: Awarded the “Golden Plate” by the American Academy of Achievement
- 2002 – 2007, 2009, 2010 (all eight years): Included in the “Slate 60” list by Slate Magazine
- 2002 – 2007 (all six years): Included in the “Most Generous Donors” list by the Chronicle of Philanthropy
- 2003 – 2008 (all six years): Included in “Top Givers” by Business Week Magazine
- 2006: Included in “15 People Who Make America Great” by Newsweek Magazine
- 2006: Received “Innovation Award” from The Economist
- 2007: Included in “Greatest Entrepreneurs of All Time” by Business Week Magazine
- 2009: Elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
- 2009, 2010: Included in “25 Best Givers” by Barron’s
- 2011: Included in “World’s Most Powerful Philanthropists” and awarded the “Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy”
- 2011: Honorary Doctor of Public Service from Tufts University, U.S.A.
Biography (Pierre Omidyar biography)
Academy of Achievement (Pierre Omidyar Biography)
Wikipedia (Pierre Omidyar)
The New York Times (An Interview With Pierre Omidyar)
Bloomberg Businessweek (Online Extra: Pierre Omidyar on "Connecting People")
Academy of Achievement [Pierre Omidyar Interview (page: 6 / 8)]