‘Brain dates’ to ease the networking scramble

Can 'brain dates' take the sting out of networking? Canadian start-up E-180 is hoping to expand its platform for setting up free, one-on-one skill-sharing meetings into the UAE.

A Canadian start-up has big plans to change the way people across the world learn and expand their businesses: by enabling one-on-one “brain dates” that help learners pick up knowledge tailored to their specific experience.

Users of E-180 can offer or request skills on the website, find a match in their area then meet up with them in a public place; no money changes hands. Meeting up for intensely focused sessions is a much more motivational and less overwhelming experience than getting lost in internet rabbit holes, endlessly searching for relevant advice, says the E-180 founder, Christine Renaud, who would eventually like to see spaces like Dubai International Airport transformed into “peer-to-peer learning hubs”.

A former high school teacher in her early thirties who studied education at university in her home town of Montreal and later earned a master’s degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Ms Renaud was inspired by the growth of internet platforms that enabled different types of sharing, from couchsurfing to car pooling.

She was accustomed to seeing Facebook posts from friends asking for an evening’s Photoshop tuition, for example, in return for dinner, and it struck her that a platform that would make it easy for people to offer and request skill-sharing meetings could open up a reservoir of untapped knowledge.

After a couple of years giving herself a crash course in entrepreneurship, Ms Renaud launched E-180 in 2010 with co-founder Alexandre Spaeth, a computer engineer, and it’s now possible to offer or browse possible brain dates, from fundraising for non-profits to digital photography, at E-180.com. Currently the most active hot spot for these meetings is in Montreal, where the company is based, but potential teachers can sign up anywhere, including the UAE.

Ms Renaud is hoping to start working with public spaces soon – like airports and cafes – to develop hubs of activity, so that people can swap skills while they wait for a plane or grab a coffee. A mobile version of the platform is expected to launch next month.

To monetise the platform, E-180 also offers its services at conferences and events, taking the sting out of networking by allocating space for meetings and matchmaking people with skills that are useful to one another. Last year, the company helped to set up thousands of brain dates at the White House’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Marrakech and at Doha Goals Forum, a sporting conference in Qatar.

In Doha, an NFL football player asked for advice about setting up an NGO for street children, and was inundated with offers of help. At a conference in Montreal called C2MTL, a participant offered advice on how to start a meditation practice, and was contacted by a teacher at NYU’s business programme who wanted to explain to her students how meditation could foster creativity.

Meditation is a popular skill to share. Two years ago, Ms Renauld’s own husband turned to E-180 to find someone to help him start his own meditation practice. He had been diagnosed with brain cancer and was looking for a way to get through the stress of surgery conducted while he was awake, but unable to move. “It really helped him get through not only the surgery, but also the radiotherapy afterwards,” Ms Renauld says. “It gave him mental strength.”

As long as Web 2.0 has been around, people have used it to disseminate knowledge free, but what makes her platform unique, Ms Renauld says, is the extra spark that you can only get from a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation.

“Talking to people who have already made mistakes and can relate to your own experience, which is different from anyone else’s experience,” is crucial, she adds.

What has surprised Ms Renauld most of all is that everywhere in the world that brain dates have been set up there have been more offers of expertise than requests. “You gain a lot by giving,” she says.


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