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The Greatest Canadian You've Never Heard Of

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We have a challenge for you. Get a piece of paper and a pen. You have five minutes to write down the names of five Canadians who changed the world. Ready? Go.

Who did you come up with?

There are so many who have made a difference. But we'd be willing to bet that if we collected the lists from everyone reading this blog, one incredible Canadian would likely not appear on your list: Jeff Skoll.

You wouldn't be likely to notice Skoll, let alone recognize him, if he passed you on the street. Yet this soft-spoken, unassuming man helped pioneer e-commerce, launched social entrepreneurship, and transformed the film industry to make it a force for social good. This Friday, Skoll will be presented with the Order of Canada for his philanthropic work.

We got to know Skoll in Kenya in 2007. He was traveling in Africa to learn more about how he could make a difference.

Born in Montreal, Skoll earned his way through an electrical engineering degree at the University of Toronto by pumping gas at a station just around the corner from where we were growing up in Thornhill. After that, he went to Stanford University in California for his MBA. That's where Skoll met Peter Omidyar.

Omidyar had launched a new company and wanted Skoll as a partner. It seemed naïve; a business built on the idea of people trusting each other to buy and trade things, sight unseen, over the Internet.

Skoll was initially skeptical, but agreed to come on as the first president of Omidyar's company. He created a winning business plan that took the enterprise from start-up to success.

That company was eBay.

Skoll once told us that, in high school, a teacher told his class to compose what they would want written on their headstones. Skoll's answer was: "To make a difference in the big issues of the world and have a good family life."

His goal in high school was to be a writer, producing books that would inspire people to make a difference, but realized it was tough to make a living as a writer. Then eBay made Skoll an overnight billionaire. "I realized I didn't have to do the writing myself. Instead, I'd hire writers and filmmakers to spread the message about the problems facing our world," he told us.

The film company Participant Media was born.

One of Skoll's first films was pretty low key, by Hollywood standards. No CGI, just one principle actor, and the most expensive part of production was the soundtrack. Nevertheless, the film managed to generate a little buzz. You might have heard of it: An Inconvenient Truth, starring Al Gore.

Some of Participant Media's other films include Syriana, North Country, Charlie Wilson's War, The Help and Contagion.

People don't want to be preached at, Skoll realized. He carefully plans his films with stage-managed activist campaigns to create a ripple effect of public attention. Waiting for Superman, a 2010 flick about the failing U.S. education system, generated a Time magazine cover story and a full hour on Oprah.

Many of Skoll's films are guided by another one of his creations -- the Global Threats Fund. Its purpose is to act as lookout, scanning the horizon for the greatest dangers that lie in wait for humanity, and to find solutions to address these threats. The films become the engine driving public awareness of the threat, and support for the solution.

In 2008, Skoll told us he was concerned about the danger of pandemics like SARS, and the world's lack of an early warning system. In 2011, he released Contagion. Viewers came to see Matt Damon's latest flick, but left wondering how to stockpile hand sanitizer and canned beans. The film was timed to coincide with a public campaign to increase support for the Centre for Disease Control.

If you want to know what issue you'll be talking about next year, take a peek inside Skoll's head now.

You'd think radically changing the retail and entertainment industries would be enough of a legacy for one lifetime. However Skoll has also left his mark on international development and the global fight against poverty.

Skoll dove headfirst into social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs are individuals who see a problem like poverty and set out how to solve it through an entrepreneurial venture.

Through the Skoll Foundation, he has applied his considerable wealth to driving a systematic change in how we do good. The foundation uses its half-billion dollar endowment to cultivate, support and bring together social entrepreneurs like Nobel-winner Mohammad Yunus, the pioneer of microcredit.

In a 2006 address to the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University, Skoll told participants, "Some charities give people food. Some charities teach farmers to grow food. But social entrepreneurs aren't happy with that. They have to teach the farmer to grow food, teach them how to make money, turn it back over to the farm and hire ten more people. They're not satisfied until they have transformed the entire food industry."

Jeff Skoll has transformed our world in ways just as lasting as figures like Steve Jobs have, and yet, Canada hardly knows him. We suspect Skoll likes it that way. He prefers to stay out of the spotlight.

Nevertheless, we think it's about time Canada got to meet the man who is, on our opinion, the greatest Canadian you've never heard of.