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McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts, left, is one of the experts participating in the program. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts, left, is one of the experts participating in the program. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Program connects mentors with young people over a cup of joe Add to ...

Last year, half a million people watched Chris Hadfield demonstrate how to drink coffee in space. Now, young people all over the country will have the chance to ask Mr. Hadfield out for a cup of coffee themselves.

The celebrity astronaut is just one of more than 300 leaders in business and government who have already agreed to be part of a new project launching on Tuesday. Called Ten Thousand Coffees, it is designed to provide free access to experienced people in every field for a coffee meeting where they can provide advice crucial to those just starting out.

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There is already a wide range of high-profile experts involved – including the chief executive officer of OMERS Ventures, John Ruffolo; Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau; Olympic gold medalist Mark Tewksbury; and CBC personalities such as Rick Mercer and George Stroumboulopoulos.

The program grew out of a problem: Young people who have the most success setting up a meeting with important figures in their field are often those who have a connection – through a friend of a parent, for example. That was a roadblock for the program’s founder, Dave Wilkin, as a young graduate before he started Redwood Strategic Inc., a Toronto firm that focuses on helping companies such as PepsiCo Inc. and Samsung Canada communicate and market to young people.

“I went through over 250 business cards before I got a call back,” he recounted. “… We want to democratize that coffee opportunity to any young person.”

It will work a bit like an online dating site for professional meetings: People can use the website to sign up either as “experts” offering their time or “novices” seeking a conversation.

Novices cannot carpet-bomb experts with cut-and-paste requests, however: They will be required to answer questions specific to each individual. For particularly in-demand experts, the team at Redwood will filter the requests.

“It is extremely important at this time, in our country, that business leaders make time to meet with future leaders,” said participating expert Jordan Banks, Facebook Inc.’s global head of vertical strategy and managing director of Facebook Canada. “… It happens in other great countries.”

Ten Thousand Coffees is not arranging long-term mentoring relationships; it only sets up meetings (over coffee, or for people who live far from their expert of choice, over phone or Skype.) If people have a connection, a mentorship may grow out of it, but no commitment is required.

“The currency of people’s time is a real challenge right now,” said Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Overholt. “Convincing people that they should give you time for coffee and some advice is probably a harder challenge today than maybe it’s ever been for young folks.”

The program is free for all participants, and that will not change, Mr. Wilkin said. So how will his firm recoup the cost of running it? And what’s in it for them?

First, it’s a marketing tool for the agency – connecting young people to some of the most powerful executives in the country is a great way to tell those executives that Redwood understands young people. Companies (such as those that sell coffee, for example) may want to invest in sponsoring the program. And with all the data on participants, given the questions they answer when seeking out meetings, the program will give Redwood a rich source of research on young consumers.

Mr. Wilkin plans to expand the program beyond Canada later this year, and is already in talks with industry leaders in the United States and Britain. Of all the experts approached, he says he has yet to hear a “no” from anyone.

“I ended up in my roles, and some of them at a young age – it was because of having mentors who were willing to take a chance,” said Kellie Leitch, federal Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women, who is also volunteering her time.

The experts also have something to gain. John Betts, CEO of McDonald’s Canada, recalls a coffee he had recently with a 23-year-old seeking advice on starting his own business.

“Hearing his mindset as a young person, the things that are important to his target audience, I want to be aware of that,” he said.

“There’s this huge group of millennials that are so talented and shape the way our world works today,” Mr. Wilkin said. “... [They] have such potential, and all these companies are trying to get ideas from them.”

EXPERT ADVICE

Ten Thousand Coffees is designed to connect young people seeking advice with experienced leaders in their field of choice. Some examples of the Canadians who have agreed to participate:

Deborah Apps, president and CEO of the Trans Canada Trail

Jordan Banks, global head of vertical strategy for Facebook Inc. and managing director of Facebook Canada

John Betts, CEO of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd.

Bruce Croxon, co-founder of Lavalife, entrepreneur, panelist on CBC’s Dragons’ Den

Rupert Duchesne, group CEO, Aimia Inc.

Noreen Flanagan, editor-in-chief of Elle Canada magazine

Maxine Granovsky Gluskin, president of the Art Gallery of Ontario board of trustees

Chris Hadfield, retired astronaut, first Canadian to act as Commander of the International Space Station, author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Tim Hockey, head of Canadian retail and commercial banking at Toronto-Dominion Bank and president and CEO of TD Canada Trust

Kellie Leitch, Federal Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women

Michèle Maheux, executive director and chief operating officer of the Toronto International Film Festival

Rick Mercer, comedian, host of CBC’s Rick Mercer Report

Joe Natale, executive vice-president and chief commercial officer at Telus Corp.

Chris Overholt, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee

James Politeski, president of Samsung Electronics Canada

John Ruffolo, CEO of OMERS Ventures

Javier San Juan, president and CEO of L’Oréal Canada

Karen Stintz, Toronto city councillor and chair of the Toronto Transit Commission

George Stroumboulopoulos, CBC Television host

Mark Tewksbury, Olympic gold medal swimmer, public speaker

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