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Q&A with Pierre Omidyar, '84

The St. Andrew’s alumnus and founder of eBay talks social change, service and his first paying technology job  — at St. Andrew’s.
You’re best known for founding eBay at the age of 28. By any measure, the company has been spectacularly successful in providing a needed service and generating profits. Did you also have a public purpose in mind?

Despite many urban legends about the creation of eBay, my intention was actually to create a marketplace that anyone and everyone could access. At the time, I was frustrated by traditional financial markets that were only available to the few who could afford the price of entry. It was a frustrating experience, and I thought that using (new) technology, I might be able to do it differently. That it should be done differently. So in that sense, yes, I think there was a public purpose behind the origins of the company. As eBay grew, it became clear that there was an even greater social impact that I hadn’t fully realized — where people had a way to support themselves by earning money using the platform.    
You’ve become renowned as an investor in social change. Can you tell us more about how you see your role, obligations, and priorities in the current landscape of philanthropy and social change?    

It’s a privilege to be in a position to help create a more just society. It’s also the biggest challenge of my life. And while it’s a luxury to have financial resources to bring to bear for the challenges we’re trying to help solve, it’s the deeply entrenched mindsets and social and cultural norms that are the most difficult to address. We learned very early on in our work that money alone is very rarely the answer. We think deeply and carefully about which challenges we take on, and we try to look at the full picture before deciding where we might be able to have an impact. What we want to avoid is creating unintended negative consequences — leaving a situation worse than how you found it.  
How did you come to have such a strong commitment to social justice and service?

My mother is a linguist and my father a surgeon — they each have an appreciation for life, love of culture, and respect for humanity. Though they expressed it in different ways throughout their lives, it had an impact on me. Growing up, I was fortunate to travel and experience many cultures. I think this impacted the way that I looked at the world — I learned that in many situations there was more than one right answer to a single question. This flexibility has served me well as a technologist and entrepreneur who often thinks, “it shouldn’t have to be this way” — and then I start thinking about what could be.  
You have generously supported the mission of St. Andrew’s Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning (CTTL). We’re proud to announce the Omidyar Faculty Fellows at the CTTL. What has motivated your interest in this work?  

Mind brain education research has made significant advances in the last twenty years. The findings, if implemented broadly, could have enormous implications for how our society evolves in the future. St. Andrew’s has been at the forefront of the movement to bring this knowledge to the K-12 community, and I’m proud to support that effort and the bold moves the school is taking to get this important work out to others beyond SAES.  
What can you share with us about your time at St. Andrew’s? 

I remember my years at St. Andrew’s fondly. In fact, I’d like to thank the school for offering me my first paying technology job. In 1984, for around $6/hour, I spent several hours one weekend working on a computer program for the school’s card catalog system. Back then, librarians went through a painstaking process every time a new card was needed — manually entering data in a very specific format. My program enabled them to enter data quickly and easily on a terminal, and the program did the formatting and printing.

Later I accepted another paying job with the school to create a computerized scheduling system. The goal was to create a program that created an individualized class schedule for each student — taking into account conflicts, classroom sizes, student preferences for class times, teachers, lunch, and other variables. This was a much more difficult and complex task than anything I had ever done. I built a database and was working on a microcomputer, which had very limited processing power. I remember clearly the impulse — but not acting on it! — to attach special code to my own name that would avoid morning classes but prioritize breaks.

In the end I don’t know if the school ever used the program. Perhaps the job was a generous mentoring opportunity from the teacher who ran the computer program at the school, or maybe it was a real assignment — I’m still not sure. But I’m grateful for the experience and the confidence it gave me as I went off to college intent on a future in computer science.
Omidyar Faculty Fellows Program
To honor and recognize Pierre Omidyar’s support for St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and for The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, the school has named the faculty fellows program the Omidyar Faculty Fellows.

In April 2013, the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) began a research partnership with Research Schools International (RSI) led by faculty from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. As one of the first eight schools in the world to establish a partnership with RSI, St. Andrew’s engages with the group annually in an original research study.

To help facilitate this study and provide professional development, the CTTL at St. Andrew’s annually selects five faculty members to work with RSI.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal School is a private, coeducational college preparatory day school for students in preschool (Age 2) through grade 12, located in Potomac, Maryland.