On Monday evening, in a hotel room in London, Kjerstin Erickson made her hit list. Laid out in Excel, it is meticulous: name, organization, responsibility–65 names in all. The next day, Erickson boarded a train and made her way to Oxford, where she knew her targets would be gathered, and then she began picking them off one by one.
Erickson is a social entrepreneur–just 25, she founded and heads a group called FORGE, which encourages entrepreneurship among African refugees–and she has spent this week at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford. It’s her first major conference, packed with the titans of her industry, and she’s here to court donors, make connections, and seek out journalists. (Full disclosure: I met her when she glanced at my nametag and said triumphantly: “You’re on my list!”) Her week has been at turns exhilarating and frustrating, not unlike her career. And her story illustrates the importance–and the challenges–of industry gatherings, especially for someone trying to build not just a career but also a young company.
A few months ago, it looked as if FORGE wouldn’t survive. The money was not coming in, and in this environment, who, really, was handing out more? Erickson blogged about her predicament on Social Edge, a Skoll-backed site for social entrepreneurs, and soon she had the pro-bono services of a consultant who helped her stabilize the organization. He also had some frank advice: “He said, ‘You need to be out there. It’s amazing that you’ve been doing this as long as you have and you’re not at all plugged in!'” she recalls. “But I didn’t want to be egocentric. I didn’t want the focus to be on the founder, but on the cause.”
But sometimes the focus on the founder actually helps the cause. And so in recent months, she has shifted the balance of her work from 85% programming to 75% marketing, networking, and outreach. She certainly has the personality for it: open, curious, charming, and just edgy enough to be cool yet nonthreatening–like the tattoos just hidden under the sleeves of her black power suit. (The one on the inside of her right wrist reads: “One life.” On her left, it says: “Be love.”)
On Wednesday, she went to a tea party and knocked one journalist and one foundation executive off her list. At dinner, she met more of her targets, including Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America. She gave them each a brief rundown of FORGE’s work in Zambia–“I’ve been practicing my pitch for five-and-a-half years,” she said, ever since she started the organization as a Stanford student. It’s often nerve-wracking: “There’s an element of, ‘I really don’t want to bother you right now,’ but I care so much that I am willing to risk that personal rejection.”
She hasn’t spent much time attending panel discussions–“I do a ton of reading and I’m up on things,” she says. Instead, she’s networking and trying to identify, by the lanyards and nametags that awkwardly hang about crotch-high, yet another of her targets. There have been moments when Erickson wonders whether she should even be here, striding around in her suit and heels, shaking hands and doling out business cards. “I’m thinking, ‘Holy shit, how do I belong here?'” she says. “My organization is half a million dollars a year, and I’m very young. And I’m in the company of giants!”
She has no expectation that any of those giants–or, really, the non–will write her a check to take back with her to California, but she does hope that those she has met will remember her and her work, and continue the conversation after they’ve all gone home. Maybe the money and the advice will come later.
The person she most wants to meet before flying home is former Irish President Mary Robinson. “I’m fascinated by female leadership,” says Erickson. “I’m always looking for models, and my pie-in-the-sky dream is that she would meet me and mentor me.”
But as of late Thursday, Erickson hadn’t yet tracked her down amid the din of 800 delegates. “I’m realistic,” she says, as she scrolls through her spreadsheet, glancing over the names of those she has not yet met and counting up those she has. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven … Eight.”