Is Jeff Skoll the media mogul we'll actually like?

In distinct Hollywood style, it was the likes of Nelson Mandela, Ghandi and Mohammad Yunus peering out from the big screen that introduced delegates to the Skoll World Forum’s opening plenary. 

But this is Hollywood with a difference. The big screen, a booming American voiceover, and engaging narrative, have been re-configured in keeping with the style of social impact media maker Jeff Skoll. He is the founder of the Skoll World Forum, of the Skoll Foundation, of film production company Participant Media and one of the founding employees of eBay (hence the spare cash for a new world forum or two).

Nelson Mandela’s famous words, “It always seems impossible until it's done,” appeared in bold on the screen as the opening session began, and framed the speeches and conversations between – as we've come to expect at these annual Skoll gatherings – a remarkable selection of speakers that personify relentless ambition harnessed to a drive for social change.

As with so many entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, their ambitions were such that – had they not already been so uber successful – you might think they were mad.

Jeff Skoll speaking at SkollJeff Skoll speaking at the Skoll World Forum. 

Jeff Skoll himself spoke to delegates about Participant Media, his media production company, which produces blockbuster films with a social message. Folk in Hollywood had told him the streets were lined with carcasses of entrepreneurs who had tried and failed to start their own film companies; that starting a production company was the quickest way for a billionaire to become a millionaire.

A story well told can make a difference.

Yet he has done it in stunning fashion. Skoll has already produced a series of social impact blockbusters, which have won and are consistently nominated for Oscar Awards. A show reel featuring Participant Media films last night showed clips from Lincoln, The Kite Runner, Food Inc., An Incovenient Truth, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and recent release, Cesar Chavez. Just a little successful, then.

Sir Richard Branson related his story of starting up Virgin Airways, when he was bumped on a journey to the British Virgin Islands and so hired a plane himself and sold tickets to other bumped passengers. Now his ambitions are venturing into space, with Virgin Galactic his next exciting plan to give people fast, eco-friendtly trips around the world in record time by heading outside the earth's atmosphere (and therefore not polluting it with aviation exhaust fumes). 

For his part, Skoll's energies are very much focused on planet Earth, But they are no less ambitious. Skoll announced: “We want to be the most important media company in the world,” to rival the likes of Sky, Warner Brothers and Walt Disney. Note the choice of word: "Important" rather than "biggest" or "most successful" relates to Skoll's vision that creating value and solving world problems is the important job for all entrepreneurs and large corporates to be involved in, alongside the NGOs and governments.

In his case the job will be done through both philanthropy and powerful storytelling: “A story well told can make a difference,” said Skoll whose speech emphasised the power of stories to spotlight issues, and identify solutions. Participant Media’s documentary Open Heart was the evening’s filmic success story. Produced in partnership with Partners in Health, it tells the story of a Rwandan hospital that performs open-heart surgery.

The film drew attention to huge numbers of African children with rheumatic heart disease, which often develops from untreated strep throat – a completely preventable condition if antibiotics like penicillin are available. As a result of seeing the film, the Rwandan health minister is currently implementing a health care system, which is being supported by Partners in Health, to address the issues.

Another project Skoll recently undertook sought to engage young people in media-making. Now, said Skoll, Participant Media wants to start making foreign language films to grow the reach of its films to all corners of the globe.

With social impact to report, Oscar awards under his belt, and a ‘buck or two’ in his pocket, from his stint at eBay, the idea that Participant Media could become the most important media company in the world, and make Jeff Skoll a social impact media mogul, seems highly plausible.

So too does Richard Branson’s vision of environmentally-friendly earth-based spaceships. “What if you could travel to Australia in 40 minutes?” he said. In a Virgin spaceship, which is bulit in the same shape as an aeroplane, you’d be travelling at 18,000 miles per hour. The ingredients are there said Branson, for a model that could leave the atmosphere to cross the world – a sort of terrestrial spaceship.

Summing up, Stephan Chambers, chairman of the Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship, said it was “positive ambition” that drove social entrepeneurs – ambition of the Harry Potter sort, not the back-stabbing Frank Underwood sort. Oddly enough, social impact media moguls and terrestrial spaceships sit well beside wizards and flying broomsticks.

Photo credit: Will Jackson, Flickr.