AS SHE queued to meet one of her life-long heroes, Joy Lewis rehearsed in her head the questions she wanted to ask. Sir Richard Branson was the guest speaker at this year’s Scottish Business Awards and Lewis was among the nominees who were invited to be photographed with him.
Unfortunately, it was a brief introduction and she managed only to quiz him on whether he paid his interns.
“He said he did pay them,” said Lewis, recalling the meeting at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre last month. “But that was all he said before the next person was called in.”
The creator of work placement company Adopt An Intern laughs off the slight disappointment at the brevity of their meeting, but says she was delighted at his response. “I now want to meet him again, or someone in Virgin, as I’d love to follow up with some more questions.”
She appears be making mental notes as we speak, working out how she could engage one of Britain’s top companies in her internship programme, whose success led to her nomination for the award and that chance to meet Branson.
“He has been an inspiration and I love the way he is happy to make a fool of himself,” she says.
The daughter of an RAF engineer, Lewis was born in Cyprus and spent her teenage years in Lossiemouth before embarking on a 20-year career with the Foreign Office, plus a spell running a clothing business in Germany.
A youthful 53, she is now four years into heading an energetic internship business from her home in Edinburgh that helps unemployed graduates find paid work.
It came about when she was working with the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP), an independent think-tank, which was considering the idea of helping unemployed college leavers.
“They didn’t know how to go about it, but I knew I wanted to do it and it all went from there,” says Lewis, who promptly set up Adopt An Intern and is now its chief executive. The CSPP continues to support the venture, mainly through promotions and introductions.
Lewis has never been unemployed – but then, she is a graduate in bilingual secretarial work from Oxford College of Further Education. She speaks German, which has been helpful in setting up an exchange programme there, and can get by in French, Portuguese and Spanish. The work she is doing now needs mainly negotiating skills, tenacity and lots of determination. She has a small team, each working remotely, and while communication among them is generally by electronic means, Lewis says there is a lot of personal contact with the graduates and client firms.
“People appreciate what they call our social value. They like the fact that we are very hands-on, that we do all the preparatory work, the screening and mentoring,” she says.
This tailored service is something she is particularly proud of, and believes it is adding something of real significance for all parties. It also helps explain the repeat custom – and the pages of glowing testimonials she hands me.
“Simple, efficient and very valuable,” reads one. Another describes Adopt An Intern as “very professional and worthwhile”. Lewis sees them as an endorsement of her decision to set up the operation and to fight for its continuation.
“When I was offered a list of things the Centre [CSPP] wanted to do, it stood out as typical of something where I could make a difference,” she says. “I knew it would be a challenge but I also knew it was do-able.”
The Scottish Government has been supportive, but after four years the budget has shrunk and she knows that it is important to wean the scheme off state support. She is now making plans to make it self-sustaining.
To that end, fees have been introduced and almost 30 client firms have agreed to pay for the additional services that Adopt An Intern provides in administering the internships and preparing the graduates.
Lewis understands why the financing has to change. “The government has many programmes that it wants to support – and I get it. It also wants us to charge for our services. The fee is affordable for even the smallest of firms and it will pay back in spades in terms of added productivity from the intern.”
More than 700 graduates have been placed – 200 in the last six months – with applications running at an average of 30 for every opportunity. She produces analysis showing that 100 per cent of employers said their experience of the interns had either been “very good” (93 per cent) or “good” (7 per cent), while 80 per cent said their intern had made a “very positive” or “positive” impact on their business. There was also a high retention rate, with 85 per cent finding the resources to keep them on. Analysis has shown Adopt An Intern adding £10 million to the economy.
Lewis is now launching Graduate Guardians, a form of sponsorship whereby a large firm will meet the wages of a graduate intern taken on by a small firm.
“This is good corporate social responsibility for the big firms and a huge help for the small firms wanting to grow but unable to meet the costs of recruiting staff,” she says, adding that she is in talks with one big financial organisation that she hopes will encourage others to follow suit. “I am trying to make the Graduate Guardians happen and I hope it will be this year,” she says.
Job: Chief executive, Adopt An Intern
Born: Cyprus, spent childhood in Cyprus and Singapore
Education: Lossiemouth High School and Oxford College of Further Education
First job: Joined the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in 1980
Ambition while at school: To be a ballet dancer
Car you drive: BMW, don’t know which model (it’s silver grey)
Favourite music: Pulp, Tom Jones, Lisa Stansfield
Interests: Photography, scuba diving and theatre
Claim to fame: Twice danced in the Rio Carnival
What makes you angry? Injustice