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How crashing a Goldman Sachs event helped 2 young founders succeed



Michael Ellison headshot
“We were more than naive,”
said Michael Ellison, pictured.

Courtesy of Michael Ellison

  • Two nonprofit founders cold called their way into a
    -sponsored conference 14 years ago.
  • Once there, they pitched anyone they could find and sat
    in on a panel presentation.
  • They ended up landing meetings with some executives and
    getting their support.
  • One of the founders, who was 19 at the time, said his
    strategy for success his to do the things that scare

Michael Ellison, CEO of the nonprofit, 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

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

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

‘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

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

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

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
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.,
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.”

Get the latest Goldman Sachs stock price here.

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