Pierre Omidyar: Innovative Technologist, Selfless Philanthropist, Tireless Activist


Pierre Omidyar: Innovative Technologist, Selfless Philanthropist, Tireless Activist

Pierre Omidyar’s staunch belief in the basic goodness of people has been the basis for his entire, prolific career. In 1995, the French-born Iranian-American founded e-commerce giant eBay in San Jose, California.  More recently, Omidyar and his wife founded the Omidyar Network for philanthropic investments and the investigative journalism organization First Look Media.

Omidyar’s Upbringing

Born in 1967 to Iranian parents living in Paris, France, Omidyar grew up in a household in which education and professional achievement were very important and apparent. His mother was a well-respected linguistic scholar and his father was a surgeon, giving him influences in hard sciences as well as academic and journalistic fields. This influence is apparent throughout his career—he made a fortune in the tech world, but invests and engages heavily in investigative journalism, public policy and social justice.

“I’m a technologist by origin and by training, but I’m focused on philanthropy.”

—Pierre Omidyar to the New York Times

When his father began a residency program at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the family moved to Maryland. In 1988, Omidyar attained a computer science degree from Tufts University and began working for Claris—a subsidiary of Apple Computer—developing Macintosh software.

Early Entrepreneurism

Omidyar’s entrepreneurial endeavors began in 1991 when he co-founded the pen computing business Ink Development Corp with friends Arnold Blinn, Matt Kursh, Will Pool and Greg Stein. Due to its internet shopping arm, the group renamed their company eShop, Inc. In 1996, eShop was purchased by Microsoft.

Pierre OmidyarMeanwhile, in 1995, Omidyar was employed at the internet phone company General Magic, which was also backed by Apple. He began Auction Web on his own personal website. Auction Web included code that allowed people to list items for auction.

The business increased exponentially and users listed an astonishing variety of items for sale. When Auction Web added a means for buyers and sellers to rate each other for reliability and honesty in their transactions, word of mouth led to a substantial increase in sales. Beginning with the sale of collectibles, an array of items including electronics, vehicles, furniture, home appliances and airline tickets helped the company skyrocket.

“I created [eBay] with the belief that people are good. If you give people the opportunity to do the right thing, you’ll rarely be disappointed.”

—Pierre Omidyar to “The Huffington Post”

Omidyar Becomes a Billionaire

In 1996, Omidyar’s Auction Web transacted 250,000 auctions. In the first month of 1997, it hosted two million. The site attracted so much interest that Omidyar had to create a separate site for the method of purchasing via auction.

He named the business eBay. By the middle of that year, eBay was hosting nearly 800,000 auctions per day.

eBay created a safe place for buyers and sellers to meet. The company made money by taking minimal portions of the sales and by charging sellers 25 cents to two dollars. Omidyar’s income from eBay soon outpaced his salary from General Magic, so he took the plunge and quit General Magic, pursuing eBay full time.

“What makes eBay successful—the real value and the real power at eBay—is the community. It’s the buyers and sellers coming together and forming a marketplace.”

—Pierre Omidyar to “Businessweek”

By the end of 1998, eBay had 2.1 million buyers and sellers, and their transactions had generated $750 million in corporate revenues. Recognizing the phenomenon and potential for their share of the market, e-commerce giant Amazon.com started their own auction arm in 1999 as a competitor to eBay.

When eBay announced its initial public offering (IPO) in 1998, Omidyar became a billionaire at the age of 31.

Political Activism and Freedom of the Press

Pierre OmidyarIn 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked intel about NSA surveillance to the world, Omidyar—previously a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama—became politically charged.

He had come off to the surrounding community previously as “the normal, average, amicable billionaire,” says General Wesley Clark. Omidyar lives in Hawaii, practices Buddhism and likes to maintain a very private profile.

As soon as the Guardian published Snowden’s findings, Omidyar’s attitude changed. He pledged $250 million through his philanthropic organization the Omidyar Network and collaborated with Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras—the writers that broke the Snowden story, to start First Look Media—a news organization for “original, independent journalism.”

“I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy.”

—Pierre Omidyar to Jay Rosen of “PressThink”

Omidyar also became very vocal on Twitter, directly confronting the president about the National Security Agency’s illegal surveillance behaviors and making clear his outrage.

After the 2016 United States Presidential Election, Omidyar pledged $100 million through the Omidyar Network’s civic engagement initiative to fight “fake news” and hate speech. He is contributing to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Anti-Defamation League, to begin with.

The Omidyar Network

In 2004, Pierre and his wife Pam Omidyar established the Omidyar Network, a “philanthropic investment firm” that not only gives grants to nonprofit organizations, but also in for-profit companies.

Pierre and Pam Omidyar

Pierre and Pam Omidyar with philanthropist Richard Branson.

The Omidyar Network is both a 501(c)(3) and a Limited Liability Company (LLC), so it’s able to support both non-profit and for-profit organizations that they believe are attempting to improve the quality of life of the people around them.

For instance, D.Light, an Indian company that receives money from the Omidyar Network gives people in rural areas of India who depend on dangerous kerosene lamps or who do not have any electricity at all low-cost lights.

Through Humanity United, an anti-human trafficking non-profit Pam Omidyar established in 2005, the Omidyars have become the world’s largest private donors to anti-human trafficking efforts. This non-profit also focuses on addressing the underlying conflicts in places like Sudan and Liberia that accelerate rates of human trafficking.

The Giving Pledge

In 2010, the Omidyars took the “Giving Pledge” with 40 other of the richest families and individuals in the world. This pledge obligates the signatories to give at least half of their money to philanthropic causes of their choosing, and they have pledged at least $125 billion.

Some pledge-takers like Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet and the Omidyars have agreed to give the fifty percent within the next two decades, but eventually donate 99 percent of their wealth throughout the course of their lifetimes.

Warren Buffet wrote that if he spent any more than one percent of his fortune on himself or his family,

“neither our happiness nor our well-being would be enhanced. In contrast, that remaining 99 percent can have a huge effect on the health and welfare of others.”

Omidyar is the perfect example of a hard-working immigrant who contributed to our nation significantly and through his success is now giving back tirelessly to valuable causes here in the U.S., but also all over the world. We salute his efforts and innovations, and welcome him to our #WeAreImmigrants campaign.

Nisha Katti

About Nisha Katti

Nisha Katti is BlueTone's Marketing Coordinator. She specializes in content writing and social media management, among other activities. Nisha is a native of Atlanta, yet her heart will always lie with the magnificent magnolias of Athens, Georgia, where she attended the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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