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How (RED) CEO Susan Smith Ellis Tapped Damien Hirst to Raise Millions for Africa

Inspired Red

Asked at Fast Company's Most Creative People event last week about how she asks others to take risks, (RED) CEO Susan Smith Ellis offered a one-word answer.

"Nerve," said Ellis, who was featured as #25 on our Most Creative People in Business list.

By now you should know how (RED) partners with world-recognized brands like Apple and Nike to raise funds for combating AIDs in Africa. (Most likely, you've seen that Gap captu(red) the slogan in many of their T-shirts.) But (RED)'s success didn't happen naturally; as Ellis told audience members, the success of (RED) stems from finding the right partners, and finding the right environment for them to succeed.

"Our biggest challenge is scale," says Ellis. "How many partners can you take on before everything is (RED), and then we're not special?"

Ellis found a great partner in 2008, though, when she asked famed British artist Damien Hirst to help raise money for (RED). The two set up an auction with Sotheby's. By the end, they had raised over $38 million. How?

Ellis explains that Hirst wrote hand-written letters to 100 contemporary artists asking them to create an original piece for the auction. "If you do this for me," Hirst wrote, "some day, when you need to call on me, I will reciprocate for you."

"Soon, 98 said yes, and only two said no," explains Ellis. "Many of the artists broke their personal best record the night [of the auction], and the two that said no are probably kicking themselves."

For Ellis, it's all about leveraging the partners you have.

"It's kind of a jujutsu move—leveraging Damian," Ellis says. "He's an artist—his friends are artists. Don't ask him to come speak at a concert or something. Make it easy for that person—it is the [art] world in which he lives."

It only took two hours to raise the $38 million for (RED). To put that in perspective, it took the charitable organization an entire year to raise its first $18 million.

And how does she handle personal risk taking? Susan Ellis talks about her own leap of faith, from running Omnicom to joining a startup with a then unsure future:

Click here to join (RED).