Alice Kahrmann interviews Dragons' Den Dupsy Abiola, founder and CEO of award-winning platform Intern Avenue.

There is a charming warmth to Dupsy Abiola’s voice. The Dragon’s Den alumnus (second) and founder of altruistic yet scalable online platform Intern Avenue (first) is resolutely down to Earth, her vernacular peppered with laughter, jokes (‘graduates can sometimes forget the small things; turning up onetime - turning up at all!), yet it is also rich with the compassion and affinity of struggle. This is a woman who has taken risks after all, leaving a secure career in law to set up a business with disruptive innovation at its core, its aim to change the modus operandi of recruitment and graduate dis'ease'; the finding of jobs, the sourcing of paid internships, surely there was a better way of doing it all? One that served not only the graduate but the employer to find their perfect match. Think dating, the setting up of a profile, a system where your interests, your personality is key, where you can communicate so much more than via the often staid typescript of the traditional CV.

In 2012 she galvanised her forces, a team that would set out to alter the status quo, because who really is it serving? Certainly not the employer with an endless stack of CV’s addressed to ‘Whom it may concern’, nor the talented graduate, lacking merely the finesse of advantageous experience to enliven their search. Someone had to come in and join the dots. Streamline the process, create a database of all the opportunities out there in the world of gainful employment and (in the meantime) save large and small businesses alike facing recruitment headaches a whole lot of Ibuprofen.

‘The landscape for young people has changed quite dramatically over the last decade,’ Abiola says. ‘Things have really moved in the sense of how one transitions out of education… In the past you would go to university, apply to a grad scheme and be accepted (without work experience or anything else). But there’s a lot of data to suggest now that London is more competitive for graduate jobs than it’s ever been. At the same time the expectations of employers have shifted dramatically. If you haven’t got relevant tangible work experience, it’s almost impossible for you to get accepted onto a graduate scheme. What compounds it in some key sectors that graduates want to enter is that something up to 75 or 80% of their intake comes from some kind of internship programme, either within their company or from another company. These are figures that I don’t think graduates are particularly aware of. When they’re thinking about things, they’re maybe not researching early enough, applying early enough.’

Abiola’s awareness of the issue started when aiding her little sister in her own job search. ‘I didn’t want my little sister on any of the websites that I saw… She was fantastically successful, really engaged in university, the kind of person who anyone would want to hire but she was finding it difficult to identify opportunities for the area she wanted to go into. For employers it’s more and more difficult to get stability for the kind of people they want to hire.’ Which is where Intern Avenue bridges the gap between two disparate (so close and yet so far) circles on the Venn diagram of recruitment.

‘In the same way it’s very hard to enter a graduate field or job,’ Abiola continues, ‘the way that people work has changed; it’s no longer a job for life. You’re probably going to do a couple of different things in different places. Sometimes it’s not what you do particularly well it’s what you aren’t able to provide, when an employer is looking at so many graduates, they’re looking to disqualify you more than they’re looking to qualify you. Small things, the growth of social media means everyone is on Facebook, some people put their whole lives on display. Employers are looking at things like that. Whilst there is a big rise in informality; lots of startups hiring - they’re the kind of place you can turn up in jeans, there is still the expectation that when you make your application it should be spell checked and grammatically correct. Your visual presentation is important. You have to make a positive impression when you arrive because there’s no way for you to make that again. There’s so much information about companies online nowadays that if you turn up unprepared... Everyone is looking for someone who is thoughtful and has done thorough research on what working for the company might entail.’ Effort x time x attention to detail (the more detailed the profile the more successful the candidate) = exponential growth in the number of interviews trapped in the graduate net.

It’s very obvious when you’ve sent out a cookie cutter ‘Hi I am… Fill in the ______’. If you’re applying for something that isn’t a natural fit you have to put real effort into explaining why you’re applying for that. Employers are looking for their star performers, who care and are thoughtful about where they are applying.’ Now for the ultimate cover letter (graduates sit up and listen): ’I’ve been following the growth of your company since INSERT,' Abiola dictates, 'especially with regards to your IPO last year. I’m especially excited given that you’ve done these three things recently: INSERT, INSERT & INSERT. Here are two or three parts of my course work that are relevant to the position that you’re looking for. I would absolutely love to have the opportunity to come and speak to you.’ Best to put it into your own words of course.

But back to the most arduous trial by fire, The Den. Abiola succeeded where many have succumbed to the stuttering humiliation of investment questioning, securing investment from notoriously nard nosed entrepreneur Peter Jones. I loved the way you said you were expecting the questions in the Den to be harder than they were, I observe, that’s a sign of thorough preparation. ‘On Dragons Den you don’t have very much time,’ Abiola laughs. ‘In less than two weeks you have the filming date. You’re told they can ask you anything about your business, how terrifying! It’s like a televised test but someone can ask you anything about something! If you crash and burn…’ Not that Abiola did of course (watch her pitch below) is a composed 'How To', manna to the seasoned investor. ’I remember watching the show when I was at university,’ she reminisces, ‘and thinking ‘what kind of a lunatic would go on?’

Whilst Abiola ‘loved being a lawyer and I loved the law but I also am one of those people; I always did lots of stuff - I believe in challenges, I believe in trying to do something bigger. I really feel a responsibility, and such enduring appreciation for all the education and opportunities that have been available to me. It was a wonderful period where I left Oxford became a barrister; I was working my way up but I remember thinking to myself: I feel like there’s a lot more that I could do professionally. I felt that I could provide more value - it’s those little voices inside you, that person that puts their hand up to do stuff. There were two roads stretched out, one was very respectable but I could see the whole of my life mapped out before me. it would be a good life but it would be a predictable life. Or I could go off and have an adventure and be able to say regardless of the outcome that I had the guts to do something that I felt would make a difference to people.’

Then we go off on a tangent; careers that are determined on luck. Modelling for example, the Victoria’s secret show -  the epitome of where women should seemingly be, serious social media overload - yawn (Abiola agrees), the lottery ticket of fate, where you were born, the socio economic tombola determining, well your whole life, the inequality of male/female pay, the teaching of tax return filing in schools (why is this not on the curriculum?), the list goes on, culminating in how far the female race has come after all, ‘You owe it to the women of the turn of the century to take the ball and run with it,’ Abiola says referencing the film Suffragette with Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep. ‘For all the challenges I’ve faced I feel really blessed. We live in a time where women can lead companies, we take it for granted but this time last century we didn’t even have the vote.’

The most difficult part of the journey thus far is a mental one; ‘when things are difficult just keeping going. Know things are going to be ok. Keep your mind right, if you master that everything else is fine. I always get out a piece of paper, even when I’m really stressed by a situation, I say to myself - have you even tried to work out ten things you can do to improve where you are? Then when I get to ten I try to write down five or another ten. As you begin the process of writing down the options, there are always more than you think. There’s always something you can do.’

I have a real sense that Abiola is conservative in her observation that they are ‘always pushing’ the site is evidence of attention to detail that marks out the great from the merely good, it’s been honed, perfected to the max. They are also ‘socially responsible about the way we do things. Having the courage of our convictions, when there’s a big contract on the table, having to turn away business.’ The great things about starting a business are the sense of community, how willing other entrepreneurs are to help, ‘when you’re a barrister you really can’t call anyone and say ‘I’m having a bit of trouble with this case’ do you want to come and have dinner with me? Or coffee? They’d be like ‘Get lost!’ With businesses people will literally bend over backwards for you, it’s wonderful. I’ve done it myself for people who are starting out, there’s that passing down and giving back. There are even clients of ours who will write to you and be like, here are five other customers who I think would like your service. It’s great what other people will do. Lord knows we all need as much help as we can get right!?’

It’s evidently been a high octane few years, punctuated by some ‘pinch me’ moments, ‘the endorsement from Angela Merkel last year was pretty high up there.’ Abiola spoke at 2014's Digitising Europe event, her startup was subsequently endorsed by the German chancellor. ‘Savour anything good that happens,every small victory - from every small client to the moment your team has a good day, thats all you have because everything else is really transient,’ Abiola says as the interview draws to a close. Afterwards I think about what she has done, no small achievement. There are jobs out there, and there are the skilled graduates to fill them, but something wasn’t working - a communication breakdown between brands and their niche yet talented workforce. Thank the Lord Abiola stepped in to join the dots. A generation of graduates will thank her.

Dupsy Abiola’s story is one that redefines the possible. Investec Private Banking celebrates her sense of ambition, entrepreneurial aspiration and courage to achieve. Join Investec as they share more stories at www.investec.co.uk/privatebanking.

Interview by Alice Kahrmann

December 2015