President and CEO of Ebay John Donahoe gives lecture

Alyssa Mahoney

John Donahoe, president and CEO of Ebay since 2008, talked with students about the critical reception he received when he first joined Ebay and how it taught him the importance of staying true to personal values and taking risks. The talk was part of the VIP Speaker Series hosted by the Undergraduate Business Council.

Donahoe said the most important thing for young leaders is being able to learn and grow quickly. He said risks are not always rewarded at the time they are taken.

“Literally four days after becoming CEO, I stood up in front of an auditorium kind of like this, filled with Ebay sellers and said, ‘We are in a turnaround.’ And no one likes that,” Donahoe said.

Donahoe said Ebay had stopped innovating, so he started a multi-year process to change how the company functioned. Sellers were angry about changes that Donahoe instituted, including decreasing some fees but increasing the percentage that Ebay gets from the final price. Donahoe said he hit a low point when he looked up what Ebay sellers had posted about him on a YouTube video. 

“They had literally taken clips from the movie ‘Schindler’s List,’” Donahoe said. “They took clips of the German guards shooting at Jewish prisoners, and they put my name on the German guards, and they posted Ebay sellers on the Jewish prisoners’ chests.”

Business freshman James Arietta has sold vintage items on Ebay since April 2006. Although Donahoe emphasized putting customers first, Arietta said he finds Donahoe’s approach problematic for sellers.

“He’s disenfranchising the sellers,” Arietta said. “Ebay, when it first started, they were selling unique stuff and fun stuff — collectibles. And now, for better or for worse, it’s turning into a mass market thing, which is good for shareholders and stuff like that, but they’re leaving their core ideas.”

Donahoe said he questioned whether he made the right decision to make substantial changes to the company, but decided he believed in what Ebay was doing.

“The next morning, I stood in front of 15,000 angry Ebay sellers,” Donahoe said. “I said, ‘If we don’t make these changes, it’ll be bad for all of us.’”