Judging from his white, collared shirt, tie, and pullover sweater, you might assume that Bill Erickson “09 is your average Mays Business School student. Then you notice his footwear—basic, black canvas slippers, worn with no socks.

“They’re Toms,” he explains. “Every pair that you buy, the company gives a pair to kids in Africa.”

This fashion choice sums up Erickson. He’s interested in simple ideas that change the world, not to make personal profit, but to benefit everyone. Erickson’s latest venture: making knowledge free.

Mays finance student Bill Erickson was one of the organizers of the inaugural BIL “unconference” in Monterey, Calif.

Inspired by TED, the annual conference for the world’s preeminent thinkers and entertainers, Erickson and his colleagues set out to create a gathering just as important, but sans the $6K admission ticket. Hence BIL, the “unconference” with the tag line “minds set free” debuted in March in Monterey, California—in the same neighborhood and following close on the heels of TED to encourage participation in both.

(As a side note, Erickson wanted to be sure to point out that the conference title was not a narcissistic act, but rather a nod to the 1989 cult classic Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.)

BIL was organized over the course of one month by Erickson and a network of colleagues in cyberspace who promoted the event through blog posts, Twitter (a popular social networking site), and their website (bilconference.com). They scheduled two headliners to speak, well-known scientists Aubrey de Grey and Garret Lisi (both of whom also presented at TED). The rest of the agenda was an empty white board broken into 15-minute time-slots, allowing any attendee of the two-day conference to sign up and become a presenter.

Erickson said they were amazed that the board filled up in just four minutes. “Everybody came with something to say,” he said. BIL organizers expected an audience of 150, but they were pleased to have more than double that number in attendance, including 30 TED participants. Speakers presented on a variety of topics, from darknets (private virtual networks), to stem cell research, to quantum mechanics.

Convention attendees
Over 300 people showed up at the two-day free event to discuss a wide array of topics.

Though there were a few glitches (the primary one being not enough padding in the schedule, so nothing started on time), Erickson says BIL 2008 was a huge success. Plans are already underway for BIL 2009, which will be held in Long Beach, California, February 7 and 8. With more time to spread the word, Erickson says they are expecting 500-1,000 participants, mostly in the science and technology field. And just like BIL 2008, the gathering will be cost-free to attendees.

“There’s a lot of great conferences out there, but they are way too expensive for most people. The real value isn’t what the money goes for—having a nice facility, providing drinks and food, all the amenities. The true value is the gathering of the people and the conversations that happen,” said Erickson, who says they will seek corporate sponsorship to underwrite the cost of the facilities for upcoming conferences.

What does the future hold for BIL? Erickson says that there have been talks of BIL U.K. and BIL Africa, and while he’s in favor of the conference going global, he doesn’t plan to organize it. For it to be successful, he says it will have to have local leadership. “If BIL U.K. happens, it’ll be because people there want it to happen,” he said. “I’m not a leader. I’m just a catalyst.”

Erickson said if there’s one thing he learned from this experience it’s “how passionate people are about learning,” and how different this kind of relational exchange is from a classroom experience. “Our formal educational system tries to drive out creativity… On the whole, people want to learn, and people want to hear and share interesting ideas,” he said.

Erickson, a finance major and an entrepreneur from The Woodlands, Texas, plans to graduate in May 2009. While he has no one specific career goal (preferring to keep his options as open as possible so as not to miss any great opportunities) he says he wouldn’t mind moving to California to work with a start-up company eventually.