Dupsy Abiola is a changemaker, a restless spirit, who sees problems and then attempts to solve them. After watching her sister struggle to find work after university, she quit her job in order to build Intern Avenue, a platform that assists entry level talent find jobs in business. Intern Avenue won a Europa Award in 2013 for best recruitment start-up and the firm has been short-listed for a host of other notable prizes. When Abiola spoke at 2014’s Digitising Europe event, her brainchild was even endorsed by German chancellor Angela Merkel. As well as an entrepreneur and business woman Abiola also sees her role as a champion of fairness, as someone who is willing to stand up against the use, by some firms, or unpaid internships.
I was disappointed with the often opaque application processes for early careers. At the same time my little sister graduated from university with an excellent degree and a desire to go into finance. However, she ran into difficulties finding opportunities to get experience. She now works in private equity and is off to a flying start, but I couldn’t believe that such a bright person would face a struggle to find employment opportunities.
I offered to help her with her search and I quickly found that the process took hours. It was really time consuming and very annoying. It involved checking a whole host of different websites and I ended up calling a couple of institutions. I told them I was looking for opportunities for my sister and I asked them, if it’s not on your website, how do I know if you’re hiring or not? And the response I got was that there was no real way to know, which I found slightly ridiculous.
So it was kind of a little bit like spotting a gap in the market? A ‘light bulb moment’ when you felt that you had to do something to remedy the situation?
Yes, it was. If you look at the job boards that are available they are not at all similar to classified ads that you might have found in the 1960s, they are very dry and not very interesting. Recruitment is a very human thing to do, but it is sometimes difficult to find many traces of humanity in modern job adverts. There is often a very dry description of a job and then you send in a CV, which is quite an antiquated form and not something that is able to show off a person’s personality very well.
So what I wanted to do was to move this process forward a bit and make it about connecting with people. To create something that was profiled based, that leveraged the best of what we know technology has to offer. So to do this I quit my job and decided to see if I could create something, something that was a bit more in tune with how people actually interact with each other, to bring this interaction online and make it really easy for employers to identify people who are appropriately skilled and then start a dialogue with them. This allows students to be headhunted by anyone from a very large company to a very small one.
What businesses do you approach to get involved, or do businesses come to you?
We have a big breadth of businesses that use our platform, ranging from very small businesses to very large ones and we have been very fortunate to have helped some up and coming start-ups. We’ve helped business such as Lloyds, we’ve helped a number of government departments to find talent too. AOL has been a client of ours for several years, so we have larger established brands that are banks and media companies but we also have smaller companies. We have over 2,000 business profiles on our platform and we have hundreds and hundreds of clients who are hiring.
Is it only paid internships that are advertised on your site?
Yes, it is only paid internships that are advertised on the platform and this a pledge that we made very early on to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the market. I wanted to create the kind of platform that I would want my little sister to use. I was reading a lot about the exploitation that was happening due to unpaid internships and the lack of access that young people were facing in terms of getting into work.
Unpaid internships are in many cases illegal and are actually dangerous for the employer. YouGov, a couple of years ago, found that 88 percent of line managers are not aware that unpaid internships are actually illegal in this country because of national minimum wage laws and they were simply unaware of what the rules where. I am sure that there are quite a few companies that are trying to supply unpaid graduates working for six or twelve months at a time either for free or earning expenses only and some of these individuals are working for free during the week for nothing and are working all weekend and in the evening in order to make ends meet. That is an awful state of affairs.
There are also a couple of internship providing companies that are asking graduates to pay them to find internships. One of these companies got shut down in the UK, but there are still several that offer ‘opportunities abroad’, international work experience opportunities, which is effectively a person paying to work at a company for a couple of weeks or months abroad. So this is the kind of risky dynamic that is out there for young people. We wanted to create a space that is really about connecting quality people with quality opportunities.
So would you say that as well as advertising these great opportunities for young people, part of your job is also to battle against the scourge of the unpaid internship?
Absolutely. I know that unpaid opportunities get a lot of press, I think the majority of opportunities out there are paid, I think there are some people that are just not aware of them. When people think about how the composition of their business and how their business is going to grow, they appreciate the necessity to invest in talent and you cannot do that if you are not paying someone. Also the outcome of unpaid opportunities is horrible. It is not good for the candidates, often they lead to low motivation and there are quick drop-out rates when they find paid work. So there are not really any good outcomes for anyone involved.
When it comes to the actual writing of profiles by candidates, do you offer any guidance during that process?
At every stage of the sign up process there is information on, for example, what makes a good profile photograph, with positive examples and negative examples offering a guide. There are videos on our blog that offer advice. We have profile ‘wizard’ too, if you follow the wizard then you will be fine!
What is the average level of pay for the positions that you advertise on your site?
The average is changeable depending on sector and location. The minimum wage is, of course, the national minimum wage and you are unable to post below that. Many of the opportunities work out on average around the 20k mark, but we do have some opportunities on the site that pay quite a lot more than that. The highest paid position we ever listed was £3,500 a month.
There are many professions, such a journalism, where internships, many of them unpaid, are still the only way of getting the experience necessary to get a job. Many internships, when paid and especially when based in London, do not pay enough to be able to cover living expenses. Given that many students are leaving university with more debt than ever before, do you think financial assistance should be offered to students and graduates to help them complete internships?
I think there are lots of amazing opportunities for young people in this day and age. So if you know that you want to write and be a journalist then you can create a blog for free or next to free using platforms like WordPress and Medium. There are lots and lots of forums where people can get their voices heard and if you’re going to work for free you should really invest in yourself, I’d say, and your skill set and a wannabe journalist can very easily do that by creating very beautiful looking blogs and getting your content and your writing out there, while submitting to other blogs. So I think that young people could certainly look at lateral ways for them to upskill themselves, without necessarily having to work for someone unpaid. They can, if they want to, opt to join a site like mine where every opportunity that is listed is a paid opportunity, so it filters out the white noise in that particular respect.
Should living on the breadline be a price a person has to pay in order to start a career?
I think it is very important, and we can’t be naïve, that people have enough to be able to afford to live and work and not be worried about how they are going to keep a roof over their head. But, I think that every person has to understand that if you’re going to be a superstar, you’re always going to be paid less than you’re worth, that’s the very definition of being exceptional at what you do.
You always have to look to give more value than you receive, but that does not mean that you should be on the breadline and you also have to understand that if you are making these decisions or you do find yourself on the opposite end of a discussion where you are effectively giving your time for free, or for next to nothing, then you have to be very clear about what you hope to get out of it and what you hope to be able to provide to the employer that is valuable. So, for example, if an employer is saying to you that you can work for CV points, then there are many ways that you can do that, but if they are saying that there might be a job at the end of it then you should really understand what the criteria are, so you know that you are actually working towards something.
Should companies offering unpaid internships be avoided?
Often people who are not paying any wage cannot afford to pay as they have an unsustainable business model and then you have to wonder if that particular time is the right time to join the company as an employee, unless the company is a start-up. Start-ups do, depending on their life cycle, have slightly separate issues. Some industries have lists of people who they never pay and will never pay, people who are doing tasks such as getting people coffee, for example, or running to the shop and back, in those kind of circumstances an intern has to ask if that particular situation is worth it. You have to put a value on your own time and ask what a particular experience is actually going to get you. Am I going to get more contacts? Will this drive my career forwards? Because often unpaid opportunities do not achieve any of these things for a person. If there is no payment or no prospect of payment then you are probably not doing something that is deemed to be particularly valuable. A person has to think of ways that someone can offer their services creatively for free initially in order to prove value.
One thing I often say to people if there is a company that they particularly love and the person wants to get into their marketing department for example, you have to suggest better ways that the marketing department can be doing things. You have to show you have something to bring, a creative way of thinking that is worth paying for.
Create a proposal, tell the firm you want to join how you would execute that proposal. Give me two weeks and I will prove these things to you and if the person does the hopefully this will be enough to justify payment in the future. This is exactly the kind of thing that many businesses want to hear. You have to be entrepreneurial in the way that you approach your career.