Michael Ellison, CEO of the nonprofit Codepath.org, recently posted on LinkedIn about an experience he had 14 years ago that launched his career.
To make a long story short, Ellison cold called his way into a Goldman Sachs conference, then ended up speaking at that conference the following year.
We called Ellison, now 33, to get the full details, and he told us that he and his cofounder hardly had a plan when they started dialing random phone extensions at Goldman Sachs.
Ellison and his cofounder decided to cold call Goldman Sachs and ask for funding
At the time, Ellison’s nonprofit, BASE, was about three months old. Ellison and his cofounder, Lori-Anne Ramsay, had come to one glaring realization: They couldn’t get anything done without money.
Read more:The CEO of a startup that’s raised $20 million gives the same piece of advice to every new entrepreneur he meets
It was 2004, and BASE was designed to help students in low-income communities around Boston, where dropout rates were high. When it came to funding, BASE’s founders didn’t have much.
“We were more than naive,” Ellison told Business Insider. They asked each other: “Who has money?” (And might be willing to share some?)
One of them suggested Goldman Sachs. “We’d heard stories about executives [there] getting huge sums of money,” Ellison said.
Ellison and Ramsay decided to dial any numbers they could find on the Goldman Sachs website. Every single person that answered hung up on them.
Eventually, someone answered and suggested that perhaps they were calling about an upcoming conference Goldman Sachs was sponsoring, “Pipeline Crisis Winning Strategies.”
Ellison and Ramsay had no idea what she was talking about, but they went along with it and ended up receiving tickets to the conference.
‘You could feel how much money was in the room’
A few weeks later, they boarded a $10 bus from Boston to New York City, Ellison wearing an ill-fitting suit he’d borrowed from his roommate.
As soon as they arrived at the conference, Ellison said, they knew they looked out of place: Everyone there was at least 40 years old and established in their careers. “You could feel how much money was in the room,” Ellison said.
Undeterred, Ellison and Ramsay started going up to people and pitching BASE: “Hey, so I’m working with this nonprofit that I founded…” Most people were dismissive.
They might have been out of luck had they not crashed one of the conference panels. Ramsay asked a question about the root causes of the dropout trend that stumped the panelists.
Multiple people came up to Ellison and Ramsay afterward to meet the precocious youth who’d asked the question. Some were lawyers at a top New York City firm, and one worked at the Goldman Sachs Foundation.
The following year, Ellison’s cofounder spoke at the conference
The founders arranged meetings with some of the executives who’d approached them, and continued to send them regular progress updates. They would even work their political capital, offering to connect one executive they’d spoken to with others they’d met.
Within months, they’d been appointed to the committee that planned the Pipeline Crisis Winning Strategies conference. Ramsay even earned a spot on one of the panels.
Goldman Sachs was shocked to see Ellison and Ramsay again. “How are you here?” Ellison remembered one executive asking.
Cold contacting a successful person can (sometimes) be a winning strategy
While Ellison and Ramsay may have used an extreme strategy to build their business, they’re hardly the only people to cold call or cold message their way to success.
For example, Elliot Bell sent Kathryn Minshew, CEO of The Muse, a cold LinkedIn message after he saw her speak at a conference. Bell ended up getting hired as the head of marketing at The Muse (even though they hadn’t been looking to fill that role).
Meanwhile, Liz Wessel, CEO of WayUp, has all her employees cold email their idols. Wessel herself emailed her biggest role model asking for 15 minutes of her time, and the woman invited her to come to dinner at her house the next night.
Wessel’s advice for cold emailing is rather different from the technique Ellison and Ramsay used. Her specific pointers include: Make the message personal and identify one small thing you’d like to get out of the meeting.
‘I’m scared to death, but I’m jumping in anyway’
BASE is no longer in operation. Ellison said it fell apart during the 2008 financial crisis.
Since then, Ellison has launched a number of organizations, including the Y Combinator-backed Class Metric, which aimed to increase student engagement and comprehension. CodePath.org, where Ellison is currently CEO, is geared toward boosting the number of high-performing, underrepresented software engineers in the tech industry.
Back in the BASE days, Ellison said he didn’t have a particular strategy when he set out cold calling, or pitching, or meeting with executives.
“Growing up, I was very introverted and self-conscious,” he said. “It took years for me to embrace the uncomfortable.” Even today, his overall life philosophy is to do almost anything that makes him squirm, even if he’s terrified while doing it.
Ellison called it a “theme” in his life, noting that he’s rarely fearless. “I’m scared to death, but I’m jumping in anyway.”