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In His Own Words

A conversation with alumni trustee John Donahoe '82, president and CEO of eBay, Inc.

Dartmouth trustee John Donahoe '82, is president and CEO of eBay Inc., the e-commerce giant that sprang, as he says, "from out of nowhere twelve years ago." Now, the company includes some of the best-known online brands in the world, including eBay, PayPal, Skype, and Shopping.com. A member of Dartmouth's board since 2003, Donahoe is an alumni trustee and chairs the board's new Alumni Relations Committee, established following last year's review of governance at the College. That committee has been meeting with alumni to hear what's on their minds and enhance communications about issues that are key to Dartmouth's core mission. Donahoe will be the keynote speaker at the Investiture ceremony of the Tuck School of Business on June 7.

John Donahoe '82
John Donahoe '82 (photo courtesy John Donahoe)
ebay logo

Although eBay is not a retailer, its gross merchandise volume (the total value of all goods purchased on eBay marketplaces globally) was nearly $60 billion last year, placing the company among the top 10 largest retailers on earth. The company is frequently in the news, usually because someone has sold, or wants to sell, something out of the ordinary on eBay. Once, a man from Brisbane tried to sell New Zealand and the town of Bridgeville, Calif., has been on the block three times. Recently, a single cornflake shaped like Illinois sold for more than $1,300. Everything from the sublime to the ridiculous can be found on the site. But for the more than one million users around the world who make all or part of their living there, Donahoe says that eBay is serious business.

Dartmouth Life recently spoke with him about being a Dartmouth trustee, and about what it's like to preside over the world's largest online marketplace.

Q: What's it like to be a Dartmouth trustee? What's the difference between the board and Dartmouth's other constituencies?

A: It's an honor. Any opportunity to serve Dartmouth is a gift. Service as a trustee isn't much different from other volunteer service. There are thousands of alumni-on the Alumni Council, class officers, in affiliated groups-who give their time and energy to the College we all care so much about, and I view being a trustee in the same way. It's a service role. My colleagues on the board see it that way as well.

That said, our role as trustees is to steward Dartmouth. Decisions we make in the short term help sustain and build the College for the long term-whether they involve electing and supporting the president, approving the annual budget or the long-term financial plan, or looking at the campus master plan to ensure it serves students and faculty now and in the future. The trustees have ultimate responsibility for the financial, administrative, and academic affairs of the College.

Q: You were a member of the Governance Committee that produced last summer's report and you now chair the Alumni Relations Committee that was one of the recommendations of that report. How is that going?

A: We have two objectives for this year: First, we've had a series of meetings with alumni groups to find out what issues are on their minds. Based on those discussions, our second goal is to focus on two of those topics, working with alumni to build awareness and create dialogue.

Dartmouth's mission and the health of undergraduate education are the two that emerged at the top. We're fortunate in that President Wright recently updated Dartmouth's mission statement. When people understand that statement and see it in action, we believe they'll feel good about where the College is headed, and it will generate useful dialogue.

The health of undergraduate education is something the board focused on a couple of years ago, and we found it to be excellent even then. And there's been measurable progress since in terms of class size, student satisfaction, additional faculty members, and other factors.

This spring, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Carol Folt is on the road with us, visiting New York, Boston, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to describe what goes into the undergraduate experience at Dartmouth. Simultaneously, our committee will write a report that will be made available to all alumni. It will capture the essence of this topic-through data and conversation-and provide a framework for ongoing discussion among alumni clubs and groups.

"There is no better experience than a Dartmouth education to set a foundation for good leadership."

- John Donahoe '82

Q: You serve on other nonprofit boards, including the advisory board for Stanford. What are the similarities? What are the differences?

A: What makes Dartmouth's board-and Dartmouth-unique is the passion people feel about the College. That's one of our greatest blessings. We [the trustees] met at Stanford once to share best practices and compare issues. Folks there agreed that one of Dartmouth's distinguishing characteristics is the degree to which faculty, alumni, students, and everyone involved, care. It's one of our most valuable long-term assets. In fact, when people stop caring about the College, that's when we'll have a problem.

It's analogous to eBay. Our company's greatest strength is our dedicated and vocal community of users. They have a stake in the marketplace and what it takes to sustain it. That can make it messy at times, but it also makes it strong.

Q: Describe a day in your life at eBay.

A: The thing about eBay and the area in which we compete is that the pace of change is head turning -change on the Internet, in consumer behavior, in e-commerce-it's exciting and exhausting at the same time. eBay was a "disruptive business model"-it came from out of nowhere and changed the way people buy and sell things. Today, eBay's gross merchandise volume ranks it among the world's top 10 retailers. To make that kind of progress shows how "viral" adoption and the strength of our community have allowed us to scale and grow beyond anything that had been done in history.

There are 1.3 million people in the eBay community who make their primary or secondary living here. That's an obligation we take very seriously.

Q: On a personal level, what does Dartmouth mean to you?

A: I loved being able to engage in my classes with professors in a learning experience where I couldn't just sit back and observe. I had to dive in and participate. A Dartmouth education is all about engagement, about being challenged. You know, there's no place to hide at Dartmouth. You have to deal with people and issues that are different from you.

From the standpoint of a business leader, Dartmouth is important because we need good leaders now more than ever. A good leader has to interact effectively with people of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. He or she has to work with and through others, to strike a balance between self-confidence and humility. There is no better experience than a Dartmouth education to set a foundation for good leadership.

I firmly believe that Dartmouth is a unique place. A Dartmouth education is one of the most important experiences someone could have in today's world, and the College is stronger today than at any point in its history. That's not to say we don't have areas to improve and issues to debate. But in the midst of that debate, we need to keep sight of the fact that Dartmouth students are getting the best education in the world, that we have the best faculty in the world, and the most loyal and engaged alumni. Ensuring the health of that community is an obligation we on the board take very seriously.

John Donahoe majored in economics at Dartmouth, graduating Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He earned an M.B.A. from Stanford and now serves on that university's advisory board. He and his wife, Eileen Chamberlain '81, met while students at Dartmouth. One of their four children, Thomas P. Donahoe, is a member of the Class of 2009, and Donahoe's father is Thomas A. Donahoe '57, Tuck '58.

By LAUREL STAVIS

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Last Updated: 5/30/08