Like most large Silicon Valley tech companies, eBay’s San Jose, California, headquarters has more of a light-hearted college campus feel than one would expect for a company that pitches 1 billion sale items to 171 million potential buyers in 190 global markets, 365 days a year, non-stop.
With his jeans and sneakers and unassuming demeanor, Sam Bright fits right in. But there’s an unmistakable intensity to this head of eBay’s multi-billion dollar Arts & Collectibles platform that hints at great depth beneath the surface, as well as the reasons for his unparalleled success.
With more than 50 million listings, from sports memorabilia to comics and cryptocurrency, Arts & Collectibles had its most profitable year at eBay in 2017—Bright’s first at its helm. While the company refuses to release exact figures, Bright says, “2017 was the marketplace’s highest gross merchandise volume year for the total Art & Collectibles category in the Americas. Additionally, the category had the highest absolute dollar gross merchandise volume ever, across five [sub] categories.”
It’s been a sweet encore to Bright’s prior win leading eBay’s Strategic Partnerships-Business Development team, which inked more than 70 partnerships for its $30 billion Americas business on his watch, in just two years.
So, while this may be the first time you’re hearing Sam Bright’s name, it will not be the last.
Bright Is THAT Guy
While much has been written about eBay’s finely tuned story, Bright is only just beginning to get comfortable sharing his own. It begins with a dad from Ghana and a mom from Indiana meeting in Miami at a ministry conference. Although their differences—in race, ethnicity, and culture, just to name a few—were obvious, Bright’s parents bonded over their commitment to service and community, and their shared vocation as pastors.
They raised their only child in Peoria, Illinois, the birthplace of Richard Pryor. When Bright notes, “There’s a saying, ‘Does it play in Peoria?’ It’s kind of a test market for things,” one gets the sense that one of the things the environment tested was him. If so, he more than passed.
He was THAT kid in high school: A top scholar, class leader, and do-gooder. Studious, disciplined, and a news junkie, he made headlines himself as a regional spelling bee champ who also worked three jobs to help support his family. At 15, he founded Infiltrate, a youth council that didn’t just pick up trash and have bake sales. They did things like start petitions to reduce the heating bills for those with low income.
Bright’s own family was one of those often struggling but while their circumstances may have been limited, his father’s demands and expectations knew no bounds. “When I brought home a 95, my dad was like, what happened to the other 5 points,” Bright recalls. “When I brought home a 100, he would ask, was there extra credit?”
Bright admits the pressure could sometimes be intense, but he doesn’t dwell on it. Asked if he ever rebelled, Bright laughs. “I don’t think I had time to rebel,” he says, adding, “You tend to draw strength from the difficult times that are in your rearview mirror and realize that, if I was able to drive past those, I’ll be able to drive past what’s coming.”
What was coming was the chance to leave home for college. Seeing the positive impact of Infiltrate’s fundraising efforts was Bright’s first introduction to the potential good business can do. So, at Taylor University, a small Christian school in Upland, Indiana, Bright majored in business, funding his tuition with a mix of student aid, scholarships, and an internship at a business incubator—then a fairly new concept.
“That’s where the innovation bug bit me,” Bright says. “Working with entrepreneurs, writing their business plans and doing special projects, it was super exciting.”
As Bright’s business acumen grew, so did his awareness of his limitations. “I realized I didn’t have any connections. That started me thinking about which grad schools could open those doors.” On track to earn his degree in three years (because he “did the math and figured out it would be cheaper”) Bright applied to Harvard Business School at 20, and got in.
He did well at Harvard, although he was clearly tested once again. “There weren’t a lot of people there who had come from the Midwest, from a biracial family that lived below the poverty line,” he says. But reflecting on the experience as his 2019 10-year reunion looms, he adds, “The values that were instilled in me growing up were around hard work, never taking no for an answer, and delayed gratification. Every time I’ve invested in those values, it’s paid off.”
One Destination, Many Paths to eBay
It has certainly paid off at eBay, where Bright landed after a stint as a tech M&A associate at Merrill Lynch. After cutting his teeth as a deal captain in M&A strategy, Bright elevated his profile by quickly scaling the Strategic Partnerships-Business Development team before seeking out his current role.
“Art & Collectibles housed more than any other vertical in my mind,” says Bright. “Where else could I go from sourcing and servicing Elvis’ piano to partnering with [designer] Brad Ford to decorate the most expensive penthouse in New York?” The position also gives Bright an inside track for growing his own collection of Morgan silver dollars, gold bullion, and the occasional bit of Black Panther-themed swag. But the goods eBay sells don’t get Bright as excited as the good he believes he can do there.
“When I think about what motivates me, it’s impact and innovation,” says Bright. In the last 18 months, his team has launched several campaigns that have checked off both of those boxes. In March, eBay partnered with popular African American artist Hebru Brantley to release an exclusive, signed, limited edition print to benefit breast cancer research, Brantley’s personal choice. It sold out in 65 minutes, raising about $90,000, 70% of which went to fund the search for a cure. Bright was thrilled by both the collaboration and its result, but it was personally meaningful also, as he lost his own mother to breast cancer a few years ago.
As Bright continues to scale eBay’s Arts & Collectibles business, he also hopes to eventually scale into a CEO role at that nexus of business, technology and social impact.
“To me, the destination is fixed and the routes are negotiable,” he says. “The destination is how do I make sure that someone who comes from my same economic profile has the opportunities I’ve been afforded.
“At eBay, every day we’re trying to create opportunity,” Bright continues, practically echoing the narrative on eBay’s website, with the earnestness of an acolyte. “EBay is one of the most democratic platforms out there. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like, or how much money you have. You can have a store on eBay and someone out there will have a similar interest and eBay will help connect you to them. That’s fascinating both in its simplicity and its complexity. It’s not just commerce, it’s commerce and purpose. That’s what makes me jump out of bed in the morning. And hopefully I’ll continue to have additional responsibility come my way, to have greater impact.”