I have never swiped right. Or left, for that matter. In fact, I’m so clueless about online dating that I don’t even know which of those gives the thumbs up. I married my husband, Sherpa, nine years ago, before online dating was the norm. I have zero regrets about never having experienced the world of Tinder. From what my friends tell me, finding The One in 2020 requires wading through the muddy waters of ghosting, dick pics and deadbeats.
And so, up until the end of last year, I quite happily assumed that my dating days were over, whether online or off. But then I came across an app called Braindate, which has been dubbed the ‘Tinder for Thinkers’. It’s a matchmaking app for professionals that aims to make networking at conferences and industry events less awkward by using an algorithm to help people connect. Users can choose between two types of Braindate: a 30-minute one-on-one or a 45-minute group session involving up to four people.
Braindate was launched by a Canadian tech company called e180 in 2013. Rather than existing as a stand-alone app that guests need to download, Braindate is integrated into the main event’s app. Since 2017, it has been used at more than 200 events across Australia, Europe, the Middle East and North America.
The CEO and founder of e180, Christine Renaud, told me over a Skype call from her Montreal HQ that the app is designed to make networking less hit-and-miss. “Everybody is sick of standing up with a glass of wine feeling awkward, trying to bump into the right person,” Renaud tells me. It’s all I can do not to shout “Yes!” in agreement.
Renaud saw the potential of applying the logic of online dating to professional networking: “What Braindate has in common with certain dating apps is the idea of building an online persona that truly reflects who you are, so that when you sit down with somebody, you are already well on your way to having a great conversation.”
Participants answer questions about their expertise and personal interests, and can also post topics to discuss during Braindates, which are ideally problems they can help solve. A clever algorithm then suggests topics that are likely to be of interest based on their profile information.
Could technology really remove the awkwardness of networking? Renaud maintains that having a topic of conversation in place helps avoid painfully long pauses, and I wanted to believe her.
On the day of my first Braindates, I woke up feeling excited and quickly changed into the outfit I’d laid out the night before. I’d given it careful thought: I didn’t want to come across as flirty, yet I didn’t want to look like a boring dullard, either. I opted for a patterned maroon tunic with a high neck worn over black leggings with cream loafers. I studied myself in the mirror: it would do.
This being in pre-COVID times, I was to meet my business-suitors at the CEBIT Australia tech conference at the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. It’s worth noting Braindates are still being conducted at the moment, albeit virtually.
I kissed Sherpa goodbye, and he wished me well on my Braindates. I dropped off my one-year-old daughter at day care and scurried down to the train station, where I set up my Braindate profile. I discreetly took a few selfies and chose one that I hoped would convey that I’m friendly and approachable, but not desperate or needy (it’s a fine line, isn’t it?).
That’s when I got my first inkling that using Braindate is emotionally confusing. It’s the same as dating, but it’s not dating. Having already found the love of my life, the stakes weren’t do or die, but nevertheless, I wanted to put my best foot forward.
Perhaps I’d already failed to do that. I cringed when a notification popped up to tell me one of my Braindate requests has been declined. Accompanying the rejection was an apologetic message in my inbox. Piers explained that his business visa had been rejected so he could no longer attend the conference. I suspected mine wasn’t the only invitation he’d received: he’d called me Michelle.
But it wasn’t all bad news – a different invitation had been accepted. Excellent. Nathan, the director of a media company, and I arranged to meet soon after arriving at the ICC.
Nathan seemed friendly as we took seats on a couple of sofas, which were dotted around an airport hangar type space in the cavernous venue. He leapt straight into the topic he’d proposed to discuss: artificial intelligence. It was immediately obvious that he was hugely knowledgeable about AI and what he told me was genuinely fascinating. I shuddered as he explained how casinos are using AI to carry out “sentiment analysis”, which involves reading the facial expressions of gamblers to manipulate circumstances so as to make them smile and spend. Nathan answered my questions thoughtfully, and before I knew it someone from the Braindate concierge was coming over to politely tell me it was time for my group session. Nathan and I swapped business cards and shook hands (again, pre-COVID).
The group meeting had already begun by the time I took a seat. I immediately regretted sitting next to this man when he coughed and told me he couldn’t shake my hand because he was sick. The woman hosting the session was an education expert who spoke about nanodegrees, which I’d never heard of before. The four of us tossed around ideas and once again, it was genuinely enriching – so much so that by the time the Braindate was drawing to a close, my brain felt weary. A TAFE teacher and I excused ourselves, leaving the other two to continue their animated discussion. The Braindate dynamic is refreshing: no matter how great the conversation, there is no obligation to stay in touch, or pretend it was something more than just an one-off chat.
With my confidence up and nerves down, I decided to really put myself out there by proposing a topic for potential suitors: What stories are freelance business journalists looking for?
As I headed off for a break, my phone pinged. Someone wanted to meet me! “I’d love to grab a coffee and have a chat,” wrote Maria, who looked extremely glamourous in her profile picture. I met her back in the Braindate lobby, and she seemed like a promising match, particularly as she had listed Jacinda Ardern as her dream Braindate (for the record, mine was George Orwell). However, it soon became apparent that she was less interested in getting to know me than she was in telling me her life story. And that was fine by me, because boy did she have a story. She was 16 when she fell pregnant, and 22 when she became a university lecturer. She told me how health workers were even pressuring her into having an abortion, and that in her small country town she was afraid to go out with the pram because of the snide comments she got for being a teen mum. Still, I made the most of my new connection: I pitched her story to one of my editors a couple of days later and was very quickly given the green light.
Next was my Braindate with Pete. Within a couple of minutes, I realised he was, well, odd. He told me about how he had to flee the country in his twenties because of his work with the unions. He spoke in rapid fire, had a nervous laugh and couldn’t seem to look me in the eye. I scampered off as soon as our time was up.
Fortunately, my last Braindate was truly a charm. Celia oozed coolness. She started her own PR company in Sydney after working with the likes of Coldplay and Pharrell Williams in the UK, and is also a mum to two gorgeous toddlers. I told her about my weird Braindate and she laughed and sympathised. We discussed a potential collaboration and swapped Instagram handles.
I left the conference centre with a real spring in my step – for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed my Braindate experiences (nervous-laugh guy aside). Rather than feeling zapped of energy, I seemed to become more energised with each Braindate. It also got me thinking about how technology has the potential to send us in two very different directions: either hurtling towards loneliness and isolation or bringing us closer together. I vowed always to use it for the latter.
Networking for the new age
Using the namesake dating app’s mantra of “make the first move”, Bumble Bizz encourages users to take the next step in their careers by connecting, sharing advice and learning from other members. The Bumble team also host networking coffee dates, fund small-business grants, and last year they held a global summit with Serena Williams as the headline act.
The future is female – and Business Chicks is proof of that. Members are given opportunities to connect and support each other online and IRL with panel discussions, masterclasses, an exclusive job board and insightful Instagram takeovers. Our kind of girl gang.
Gone are the days of unsolicited messages and LinkedIn spam thanks to this Android and iOS-friendly app. Shapr recommends 15 profiles daily, based on your tagged interests, location, profession and mutual desire to connect. All you have to do is swipe right to match, chat and meet up with your new work-wife/boss/mentor.
Looking to level-up your networking experience at events? This handy app can sync with your LinkedIn profile, search for local events, and browse the profiles of other event attendees even before you’ve purchased the ticket. If you spot someone who piques your interest, you can connect via your integrated social media accounts and even send them a DM.
Say goodbye to awkward professional small-talk and say hello to Weave, your new wingwoman. For those who’d rather a face-to-face introduction, this app facilitates professional connections and sets a meeting time and date. Just like a postdate debrief with your best friend, you can share your thoughts with Weave after the meeting and it’ll refine your future matches.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of marie claire.