When former teacher and social-tech entrepreneur Christine Renaud co-founded E-180, a platform that supports peer-to-peer-learning, conferences and events weren’t really on her radar.
She and co-founder Alexandre Spaeth wanted, passionately, to help people learn from one another. The free global platform they launched in 2011 helps users set up “brain dates,” matching people who have identified expertise they are willing to share with those in need of it. Then they get together and talk over coffee or a beer. “It’s not a meet-up; it’s not a date to find the love of your life,” Renaud said. “It’s a way to share knowledge.” The company motto, listed on E-180’s website, is: “We will not rest until we make everyone a lifelong teacher.”
‘WHAT THEY CAN SHARE’
The founders soon began looking for ways for the company not only to bring in revenue but to create more impact. “We started thinking about the kinds of places where people were willing to meet and share their precious time with one another,” Renaud said. Which led them to conferences. “We found that conferences were fantastic places” for brain dates, Renaud said. “Conferences are where people go for knowledge and professional development. Once they are out of school, that’s probably where people learn the most outside of the workplace.”
In 2013, the company, which is based in Montreal, began working with the creativity- and art-infused business conference C2 Montréal (formerly C2 MTL) to create a peer-to-peer learning platform. C2 Montréal invites attendees to upload personal data into an E-180-designed custom platform to help match attendee requests for — and offers of — expertise during the conference. In 2015, Renaud said, the E-180 platform helped arrange 1,500 such brain dates between C2 Montréal’s approximately 5,000 attendees.
The thing that we always hear is, “I wish every single event had this.”
E-180 uses an algorithm to facilitate profile matching, but it also relies heavily on on-site “professional matchmakers” who help conference-goers fill out their profiles and make connections. “We always say that we are more of a service provider than a product,” Renaud said. “We don’t just sell technology. We actually work really hard with the event organizer to make sure that people use the tool and learn from each other. What we are trying to do is always dig deeper and help people to define what they want to learn and what they can share. It’s something very specific.”
The E-180 team also helps attendees connect by posting offers and requests related to a meeting’s content on Twitter, using the meeting’s hashtag. “For example, if there is a panel that was very successful, we can push out the related offers and requests for people to continue the discussion,” Renaud said. “We’re really always trying to make sure that everybody finds what they are looking for.”
Behind E-180’s passion for peer-to-peer learning is the belief that the current rate of change in the business world is outstripping traditional institutions’ ability to keep up. “We have to move faster,” Renaud said, “because the pace is so fast that the idea of waiting for a year-long program to come out so that you can learn what you need to be able to start your business in, for example, social innovation in Uganda … you’re going to wait for a long time.” But “the idea of learning from another human being who has gone through something similar, and then learning from his or her successes and also failures, is something that is so individualized, so agile, that it allows for people to move very quickly and to learn very quickly.”
The platform also requires commitment from organizers, Renaud said, including identifying a place to set up a “brain-dating lounge” — a clearly defined, comfortable space where people can find one another and meet. Some clients have invited speakers to make surprise visits to the brain-dating lounge, for spontaneous meetings with attendees. Meeting organizers also need to make time in the agenda for the one-on-ones to take place.
Some of E-180’s clients have made brain dates mandatory for every atten-dee, but in general, the participation rate is about 40 percent, a number that Renaud would like to nudge up to 50 percent. “The thing that we always hear is, ‘I wish every single event had this,’ because we help people to have meaningful, impactful conversations,” she said. “It is not about exchanging business cards. It starts with a spark. It starts with a great conversation and shared values. That’s, I think, what the strongest business relationships are based upon.
“I think that the most beautiful thing I have heard is that the work that we do gives people faith in humanity,” Renaud said. “You know, that idea that I’ll have somebody I don’t know that will willingly accept to spend half an hour with me to share her challenges and help me out with mine is something that is profound and very meaningful.”