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Yonge Interviews: Dave Wilkin, founder of Ten Thousand Coffees

Ten Thousand Coffees Founder Dave Wilkin chats with expert John Betts, CEO of McDonald's Canada.

If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be? Would you choose astronaut Chris Hadfield, recently announced Hockey Night in Canada host George Stroumboulopoulos, or leader of the Liberal Party Justin Trudeau? If you're a young person, all three of these experts and hundreds more are available to speak with you right now. All you have to do is ask them to meet for a coffee.
Enter Ten Thousand Coffees. Twenty-six year old founder Dave Wilkin saw an opportunity to match young professionals with experts from a number of different backgrounds. He realized there were conversations that needed to be happening between what he calls the leaders of today and the leaders of tomorrow. From media to government, technology to transportation, Ten Thousand Coffees features top leaders representing more than 35 industries. 
In the mission statement, Ten Thousand Coffees says its "the first youth movement of its kind in the world, created by young people for young people. It's more than just a chat over coffee. It's a new way for young people to unlock opportunities and share their ideas, and for industry leaders to share their experience."
We spoke with Wilkin to learn more about the inspiration behind this potentially revolutionary local platform.
Maybe to get us started, you can tell us the inspiration behind Ten Thousand Coffees?
Ten Thousand Coffees was created from seeing this massive opportunity between a number of industry leaders and this gap that separated them from the next generation. What we saw was that these leaders were so interested in having conversations with young people, to learn about what's next, to unlock insights, to gain ideas, and they were doing that by going for coffees with the next generation. At the same time, we saw that as a young person, or a young professional or recent grad or as a student, to have an opportunity to go and share ideas with these industry leaders would be such a great way to unlock opportunity. We thought if 10,000 hours creates an expert, as they say, then what could happen to a country if we had 10,000 hours spent between the leaders of today and the leaders of tomorrow, so we created Ten Thousand Coffees to bridge that gap and to help future proof the country. 
How many people are working on Ten Thousand Coffees right now?
We have a large team out of Toronto. We have a group of developers, designers, community managers, and researchers to make it all happen. 
So you are operating as a business?
Did you feel there was a need for this specifically in Toronto?
Yeah I mean in Toronto you have such a wealth of young talent. We have young professionals who are ready to take their careers to the next level. We have so many students who are looking to figure out what their first step will be. There's such ground for innovation in Toronto whether you're entrepreneurial, artistic, technical, or anything in between. We also have such an amazing hub of experts and industry leaders who have such great advice to share and an appetite towards the next generation. We've seen in Toronto such a tremendous interest from hundreds or companies and their leaders, and thousands of young people to just connect, share ideas, and shape what's next.
I saw in another interview you did, you were talking about how you had something happen to you when you were younger that was key to your professional development: somebody advised you to start your own business. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? 
Yeah I grew up in a small town with no network for what I wanted to do, and so when I was finishing school I had a few started nonprofits, I had some great internship experience under my belt, and I was really focused on helping young people through nonprofits unlock opportunity. I emailed a number of different industry leaders to try to go to coffee with them and talk about what opportunities are out there. In doing that I was able to go to coffee with somebody who was also from Northern Ontario and we were able to just have such a great conversation over coffee. It was noncommittal. It was just an easy-going conversation where we could really get to know each other. Through that conversation, we were able to see that we had this methodology to help companies, organizations, and government connect with the next generation in a completely revolutionary way. At that moment when she saw that opportunity she stopped me and said you need to go and start a company. She actually said, 'I'm not going to talk to you again until you go and start a company. Go and do it.' I was just this young almost kid at the time that had done all this work in youth spaces and suddenly I had this challenge and it turned into the best opportunity I ever could have imagined and it happened over coffee. 
So why is youth such an important focus in your endeavours?
Youth is the future. The thing about companies is over 50 per cent of their workforce will be millenials in the next five or so years. Brands are spending millions of dollars on digital and social, which was completely disrupted and created by millenials. And, government are entering their biggest election in Canada and even around the world, where youth will be the deciding vote. When you look at all those things you realize how important it is for young people to have a better way to share their ideas and gain insights and take their first step. Ultimately our mission is to help the next generation unlock opportunity. We're doing that through Ten Thousand Coffees and we encourage every young person no matter who they are or where they're at in their career to join this mission with us to help shape what's next.
Are you keeping track of how many coffee meetings have taken place so far?
We don't have exact numbers, but what I can tell you is everyday we have dozens of emails and calls coming in to our office telling us success stories. What's most exciting is these success stories are coming from experts and industry leaders who have learned so much and in some cases hired some of these people they went to coffee with already. We have a number of these novices, or young professionals and students, who have been able to discover careers they never knew existed. They were saying before they went to tenthousandcoffees.com they had no idea where they were going to apply their skillsets, and then by going to [the website] they were able to browse dozens of industries and see not only what people do, but what they do it and what it means to be in that industry. Suddenly people were discovering these careers, opportunities and potential they never saw before. 
What is some of the main feedback these experts have given you?
What we've seen is that the resume doesn't work. Industry leaders see it, young people feel it, it's a big black hole. What industry leaders have said is that this is the first time ever a more efficient way for them to meet somebody meaningful, and meet a young person who can actually help them with what they're doing. It's a two-way benefit. We all know these young people are going to take so much away from that coffee. It's such a powerful thing that both parties are being able to benefit from these conversations. 
So where do you see Ten Thousand Coffees going from here?
Currently we're working with organizations and companies that have global footprints to continue to grow and bring this in our own backyard, in Canada, first. Now we're working with these global organizations to ramp up and prepare for our global launch. [This will be sometime in 2014.] The important thing for everybody in Canada is to join the movement now and help us create a story of what could happen when 10,000 coffees are shared between leaders of today and leaders of tomorrow.  Help us shape what's most valuable to the next generation so we can help people around the world be able to have those crucial conversations to help every young person start shaping what's next. 
For more information on Ten Thousand Coffees, and to learn more about the experts, visit www.tenthousandcoffees.com

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Sheena Lyonnais is 
Yonge Street's managing editor. This interview is part of an ongoing series profiling Torontonians that are changing the city. 
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