A Morning at Dejeun’aide

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Waking up at 5:45 AM is not routine. But then again, this was no normal day. Friday, November 4th, I was invited to attend an early morning breakfast event: a charity meet-and-greet that was  meant to raise funds for the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation. After a cup of dark coffee and a brisk shower, I put on an attempt at professional attire. The sun was just emerging as I left my house.

I made my way over to the St. James Club on Avenue Union, to speak with Thomas Sinclair, the head organizer of the fundraiser. We sat down at a vacant table while he walked me through the process of planning such a large-scale venture, adding numbers and insights about the event along the way. Dejeun’aide, a play on words, is a name meant to express the two defining features of the morning: breakfast and charity. Still, the organizers positioned the event as a cross-generational networking opportunity, and many were coming just for that chance.

At 7:00 the room was strikingly empty, but the grandeur of the venue was not lost on me. With a price of $65 per plate, everything had an air of legitimacy without any pretentious details. Coffee and tea were laid out by a team of well-dressed waiters, and attendees were greeted with a table number and a laminated name tag upon arrival.

By 7:30, fifteen minutes after the event was set to start, the room had filled up with 165 people. Suits wove between round tables as young professionals and students tried to make the best of their two-hour networking opportunity. Dispersed among the eager faces were twenty “leaders,” older adults who had gained professional experience and were ready to provide guidance to the younger generation. A chance to meet one of these individuals, and possibly gain a valuable connection, seemed to be the primary focus for a large swath of the attendees. As things began to settle down, everyone found their assigned tables, with one to two leaders seated at each table.

Mr. Sinclair was the first of four speakers, and he kept his remarks quick but energetic. Afterwards, there was a slight interlude for table conversations, before a fifteen-minute speech by the keynote speaker. I was seated at table 8, with Mr. John Redfern, former CEO of Lafarge North America. Though Mr. Redfern, 81, had a wealth of insights to share, his vast experience in the cement industry was not pertinent to the many finance students seated at the table, let alone to me, in computer science. Nonetheless, Mr. Redfern received plenty of attention as he responded to questions from young attendees. At the same time, waiters rapidly worked to make sure everybody was served a hearty breakfast plate, complimented by assorted baked goods and jams on each table. Finally, a woman took to the stage to deliver the keynote address.

Up at the podium was Marie-Claude Elie, an MBA graduate from McGill, and head of the Google office in Montreal. Her speech focused on innovation at Google, but it managed to capture many of the themes to success that floated over the room. Ms. Elie spoke about the need to adapt to change, the importance of vision and ambition, and lastly, the power in human connections. Above all, said Ms. Elie, “people are your number one asset.” Murmurs of agreement permeated the room, which was not surprising, given the networking focus of the event. Of the students I spoke with in attendance, not one failed to recognize the supreme importance of having the right connections in an increasingly competitive business climate. One student cited networking as the “most important” factor in his professional development, with another saying that it is “crucial to getting your first job.”

In fact, the entire fundraiser would not have been possible without the right connections, something Mr. Sinclair acknowledged during our interview. Of the six-person advisory group who helped materialize the event, three were either parents or relatives of students organizing the project. The fundraising efforts were largely met by corporate sponsors, with the advisory group playing a key role in securing these donations. Some of the largest donations came from members of the advisory group themselves.

Yet the importance of connections was not the only part of Ms. Elie’s speech relevant to the success of the event itself. Mr. Sinclair and his team, who plan on making Dejeun’aide an annual event, certainly embody Ms. Elie’s ideals of vision and innovation. In today’s dynamic climate, such an idea can go from thought to reality in a matter of months. The culmination of these charitable ambitions was a $37,000 donation towards the Montreal Children’s Hospital. These funds will surely make a difference at the hospital, and would not have made it there if not for a simple idea and the will to act. The seven organizers of the event should certainly be commended for their leadership and initiative in making Dejeun’aide a reality.

Unfortunately, the same enterprising climate that made Dejeun’aide possible is driving up expectations for students and young people to innovate beyond what might be reasonable. In today’s world, anything seems possible, and people in high school and college are acting on ideas like Dejeun’aide to great success. Students face immense pressure to stand out from their peers, as spots at top universities and businesses are vied for by a larger population. Many cannot keep up. It is worth considering whether a networking event such as this one would have attracted as many ambitious students twenty years ago, or if the inspiration would have existed for the fundraiser at all.

Ms. Elie finished her speech by urging the youth in the room to put themselves into positions where they would be “uncomfortable, but excited.” This phrase seems to capture the experience many students had at the event itself very well. It was apparent that every student I spoke to was looking to gain a competitive edge by networking, but many expressed just how challenging that could be in such a limited time span. One woman studying at McGill said that while important, networking can be “intimidating, and a bit superficial.” Still, she felt that if she did not make the effort to network, she would be falling behind her peers on their path to a career.

How much of an advantage did students get from attending Dejeun’aide? The answer, of course, will vary per student. Somebody sitting at the right table, with the proper interests, attitude, and, of course, connections, might have gained far more than a tasty breakfast. Hopefully more than a couple students met people who will prove useful to them down the road. Yet as the morning wound to a close, it was hard to shake off the dreadful feeling that I was witnessing a day in the death of normalcy. The stark reality is that every year, it is becoming harder for students to land the jobs they want, and I wondered how many students were here due to fear rather than excitement or driven by stress rather than motivation. Nonetheless, Dejeun’aide represents the power that innovation, even if spurred by discomfort, can have to make real positive change. After hours of hard work and passion from just seven young people, $37,000 was donated to an important cause, and that’s the true story here.

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