Joy Lewis – CEO of Adopt An Intern
Established in 2009, AAI (Adopt an Intern) is a multi-award-winning social enterprise specialising in empowering businesses with diverse graduate talent. It has worked with over 900 businesses, boasts over 50% repeat customers, and has placed well over 1,500 interns into paid internships/projects/permanent work with businesses of all sizes.
What made you decide to become a Founder?
I was working in a think tank in 2009, and at the time the economy was in a bad state. Countless talented graduates were throwing themselves at us, offering to intern for free. It made me realise there were likely countless similarly talented, motivated graduates who couldn’t afford to work for free.
It rang my injustice bell and made me angry. When you know something is wrong, it’s in our human nature to fight against it, and I had the platform and the contacts to make some noise.
I approached members of the think tank and then the Scottish Government, encouraging them to back paid graduate internships. A combination of fighting for a cause I believed, my values around fairness, and a weird, stubborn drive to do something different all made braver. Luckily the graduate interns didn’t let me down.
What’s been your most bruising / character-forming experience as a Founder?
We were fortunate enough to be backed by the Scottish Government in the early days. It gave us the opportunity to fund intern wages in small companies, start-ups and charities, and create some incredible opportunities and success stories. We always knew that the funding would come to an end and that the journey to becoming self-sufficient would be a challenging one, and we were right.
I had no recruitment experience, and Adopt An Intern had been built on a transparent process based on business and graduate/returner needs. Luckily, the likes of Diageo, SMEs, the public sector and charities of all sizes loved our approach and were willing to pay for our services.
Since 2017 we have been completely sustainable. It takes a bit more effort now to reach new companies, and there have certainly been challenging times for myself and the team. What keeps us going is the knowledge that our business works, and we have the statistics to prove it. We still have a 97% success rate in placing people, and 74% go on to permanent work after their short-term placement. We encourage people to hire for ‘potential’ and now, more than ever, employers recognise the value in that approach.
What were the lessons you took from this?
People have a certain perception of ‘recruiters’. Big companies tell stories of having been burned before and small companies want to keep costs down. We don’t class ourselves as recruiters – none of the team are on a commission, for example, it’s solely about the social impact.
Also, the term ‘intern’ still means different things to different people. For AAI, it’s not an unpaid student summer job, instead, it’s a probationary period for anyone of any age and any background, that could turn into a permanent role for a motivated graduate or returner.
We constantly have to remind people of this agenda and differentiate ourselves from the average recruitment agencies.
Internally, I’ve used our challenges as an opportunity for the for team to step up. They know what we’re good at and generate great ideas to get the support needed for the company and our audience. They know that what we’ve built genuinely helps people, and they want to see it grow and succeed further.
I’ve also learned that you’re never too old to learn new tricks. I constantly step out of my comfort zone to get our message to new audiences, and sometimes the team even challenge me to go further out of that zone! I’m very proud of them for this – although I hate them at the time!
Out of your business achievements to date, what are you most proud of and why?
We’ve placed over 1,500 people in valuable paid work. In that number we have some incredible success stories, with former interns now returning to us as employers. Seeing how these people have used our opportunities to advance their careers is incredibly rewarding.
In the last two years, we’ve also focused on better supporting those from marginalised groups. We’ve taken things that we were just organically doing, like attracting diversity, creating opportunities for women, returners, disabled graduates, and made that more of a formal offering. The insight and the personal stories from these efforts are very rewarding. These are people who just needed a little extra support, and have then gone on to achieve incredible things in new roles, with some even creating their own businesses.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of becoming a Founder?
Go for it. There is now a ridiculous amount of support in the UK for entrepreneurs. Whether that’s in university incubators, accelerators, with angel investors, or through any of the start-up competitions, there’s never been a better network to help turn your idea in to a reality.
I would also encourage people to ask for help. There is a huge resurgence in the concept of mentorship, and you’d be surprised by how many high-flying individuals are willing to meet for a coffee and share their knowledge.
If you could change anything to do with being a Founder, what would it be?
I always seem to find something to worry about! I’ve never been a great sleeper, but worrying about the team, our clients, our graduates, and trying to do right by all of them certainly weighs on my mind at night. I feel a great sense of responsibility to them all. So I’d like to take away the stress factor for Founders. Think twice, or learn some coping mechanisms if you’re a natural worrier!
What’s your top tip for being productive?
A Projects Assistant (in the form of a talented graduate) who can take away the admin and allow you to get on with what really matters.
Apart from a smartphone, what piece of tech can’t you live without?
Definitely Slack. Remote and flexible working is very on-trend right now but this is something Adopt An Intern has practiced since day one. Slack is a collaborative workplace hub where the whole team can keep up to date with our various projects and productivity in real time. It’s become the backbone of our communication and it’s colourful and fun to use.
What do you do when you switch off from being a Founder?
I climb hills, tire myself out and enjoy a good night’s sleep.
Talent or Hunger?
I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. Certainly, the candidates we support often have both, as do many of the employers we work with. We talk a lot about the 4 C’s of employment – confidence, competence, curiosity and commitment. I’m very fortunate that my team possess all of these traits, and I have learnt how to utilise their strengths for different circumstances.
Personally, as AAI has transitioned away from solely supporting paid graduate internships, and into the field of ‘inclusive employment’, I stay hungry knowing there is still more work to do, more businesses to support, and more people to open doors for. If I need to be talented to do that then I will just have to presume it’s there, or it’ll be another thing for me to worry about!