Networking fundraiser makes business leaders accessible to young professionals

Dan Ovsey, National Post | November 8, 2013 6:31 PM ET
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Young professionals are getting more access to senior-ranking executives than ever before, leading to more open dialogue, new organizational structures and, in some cases, a concerted effort toward corporate social responsibility.

There was a time not long ago when business leaders were inaccessible to budding young professionals eager to make an impression and rub elbows with Corporate Canada’s most accomplished.

But the advent of social media and the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis have slowly been changing the conventional dynamics between the country’s most senior and most junior professionals, leading to more open dialogue, new organizational structures and, in some cases, a concerted effort toward corporate social responsibility.

Simon Leith and his old high school chum, Jonathan Tong, have had a front-row seat to the evolution of these relationships. Two years ago, the twenty-somethings — both practicing lawyers at reputable Toronto firms — decided they wanted to recapture the creative energy of their scholastic days and do something that would give back to the community. The product was an organization called Young Professionals for Sick Kids (YPS) and the beneficiary was the Hospital For Sick Children’s endocrinology division.

I don’t think there are many other events where you have this many powerful people in a room together
— Simon Leith, Co-Founder of Breakfast of Champions

“We wanted to throw an event that would be an event we would want to come to,” says Leith. “There are so many different charity events in the city. There are so many runs and we’ve got Movember happening now, but this is something unique and something we thought young professionals would want to come to.”

The effort manifested in the Breakfast of Champions — a networking fundraiser that brings together young professionals from various fields and successful, high-profile Canadian business leaders.

The event’s second annual Breakfast of Champions was held Nov. 8 at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, bringing in an estimated $40,000 for Sick Kids but also bringing together more than 250 young professionals to hobnob with about 30 members of Canada’s business elite, or “champions” as they’re referred to by YPS.

“Our generation is so focused on our careers and being able to meet ‘champions’ that have been successful in their careers and hearing their stories, and how they got to where they are today, those inspirational and motivational pieces are important to them,” says Leith.

“I don’t think there are many other events where you have this many powerful people in a room together,” he adds, noting the executives are primarily motivated by the event’s connection to raising funds for Sick Kids.

The “champions” came from wide-ranging industries and include individuals such as: Kirstine Stewart, managing director ofTwitter Canada and former head of the CBC’s English language services; Steven Brooks, senior vice-president of operations for the Toronto Blue Jays; Rob Prichard, chairman at BMO,Metrolinx and Torys LLP; Blake Hutcheson, president and CEO of Oxford Properties Group; Paul Godfrey, CEO ofPostmedia Network (which owns theNational Post); John Ruffolo, CEO of OMERS Ventures; Lisa Lisson, president ofFederal Express Canada; Bill Webb, executive vice-president and chief investment officer at Gluskin Sheff; and many others.

Each of the executives was paired with approximately seven young professionals who paid $75 to attend the event.

“They’re a bit more transparent [today with] LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook,” says Marianna Loza, a marketing specialist at software startup Salesways, of the business decision makers who donated their time.

Ms. Losa was already making connections with Kirstine Stewart on Twitter the night before. “They don’t feel like they’re as distant, in some boardroom really high up where they’ll never get your resume or get to meet you.”

John Ruffolo of OMERS says he believes it is imperative today’s senior executives meet with younger professionals, not only to share wisdom, strategies and best practices, but also to discover new ideas and technologies, and to find creative ways of solving industry problems.

I share my story to say you can have it all: you can raise a family; you can be successful in life
— John Ruffolo, OMERS

“Now that they’re coming out of school, the whole notion of employment is changing and these kids need to be inspired to be entrepreneurs and it’s incumbent upon our future, as we start to age to make sure they’re inspired for the right reasons.”

Guillaume Lagourgue, a young business consultant who attended the event, attributes the recent accessibility of senior-level executives to a looming talent shortage that has forced senior decision makers to get creative with how and where they look for talent.

“The hunt for talent is huge in Canada and corporations are fighting all the time to find up and coming talent and I think this is one of the best venues to exchange business cards with people who impress you,” he says.

Lisa Lisson of FedEx Canada, who also sits on the board of Sick Kids, says she felt compelled to participate in the breakfast event to share with aspiring professionals her story of overcoming adversity without compromising her determination to achieve career success.

“I’m a widow and raising four kids by myself and I still became the first woman to be president of FedEx Canada,” she says. “I share my story to say you can have it all: you can raise a family; you can be successful in life. You can have something traumatic happen but you can train your mind to look at the good and the bad, moving forward in life and reaching out to people who have been in your shoes before.”

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Networking fundraiser makes business leaders accessible to young professionals