Burning Ambition

Louise Burns, founder of recruitment agency Nineteen Recruitment, on fighting corporate giants, providing an ethical service in the recruitment industry, and why she wants to stand on a level playing field.


How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?

I suffer from chronic pain and chronic fatigue due to rheumatoid arthritis, which impacts my physical mobility. I can only walk short distances, so tend to use a wheelchair for longer distances.

To me, being disabled means I can’t do what I used to do. My health is very variable: one day I can manage to walk from my home to my car parked on the driveway, the next I can’t get out of bed. I have a limited amount of energy, meaning I have to be careful what I do each day: if I overdo it in the morning, I’ll need to rest in the afternoon. I feel like my life (and work) has to revolve around my health, which is really difficult because my health is so unpredictable. It makes day to day life hard and my health demands a level of flexibility that is sometimes really challenging in business.

Tell us a little about your business.

In 2014, I became too unwell to continue my career in secondary school teaching and set up Nineteen Recruitment, a recruitment agency that specialises in supplying temporary and permanent staffing to the education, social care and public sectors. We wanted to work with schools, supplying them with motivated and enthusiastic teachers at a rate that was honest, transparent and fair.

I still had a passion for education and I didn’t want that passion and all my training and experience to go to waste. My husband and I decided to set up a supply teaching agency because I had seen so many unmotivated and disillusioned supply teachers during my time in schools. I wanted to create an ethical recruitment company that cared for and supported their supply teachers. We also found that the rates being charged across the industry were sometimes massively inflated, and we saw that it was still possible to establish a profitable business while charging a lot less.

Within a year, we were approached to supply the public sector via a major neutral vendor contract. Our approach to recruitment had attracted attention, and we knew we could replicate what we had done in education in the public sector, and this then led to us also supplying to social care. Many of our candidates had transferrable skills across the sectors, so it made sense. Fast forward to today, and we have grown our team to six (currently looking for our seventh and eighth member of staff!), we’ve just moved into a larger office and we have plans in motion for more growth.

Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.

We started the business because I was too unwell to continue teaching, and I wasn’t ready to accept that my health meant that I could no longer offer value to anyone else. I did need to acknowledge the difficult fact that I likely couldn’t manage the standard 9 to 5 anymore, or at least not without some significant flexibility. There were no jobs that I could see that would offer me the flexibility I needed to manage my ongoing health needs, and my husband also needed a role with flexibility in order to support me with my care on bad days, so it made sense for us to establish a business ourselves. It was a huge risk, as we had a family to support financially, but we didn’t have any other choice that we could see.

Despite my disability, I still had huge ambition, drive, determination and motivation. I wasn’t ready to just accept that my working life was over because of my disability. I knew I still had value to offer, I just had nobody to offer it to. I needed to create that opportunity for myself – and so Nineteen Recruitment was born!

What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?

Our main challenge is the fiercely competitive recruitment industry. We are a smaller, independent, boutique recruitment agency in a corporate world ruled by big giants. It is difficult to go up against these corporate giants, but we are passionate about what we do and confident in what we offer. The recruitment industry tends to have a negative reputation, so we are trying to shine a light on the fact that professional recruitment services don’t have to be astronomically priced. There is a way to do recruitment that is ethical, fair, honest and transparent.

Recruitment services can sometimes feel a little cold and sterile. Our brand is the opposite: we bring a human approach to recruitment. We are a friendly face when our candidates have had a bad day, we offer support to candidates who are on assignment with our clients, we ensure we match the right candidate to the right client, and we don’t charge our clients inflated fees.

What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses – what is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?

When I was ill, I didn’t see any high profile disabled entrepreneurs or business owners, and I think that if I had, that would have helped me to have more confidence in myself. People with disabilities need to see people that they can relate to being successful in business. They need to know that there is a world of possibility out there.

When you have health needs or disabilities, working for yourself can often seem like the only way forward. We need support services for people with disabilities who are interested in running their own businesses.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?

The proudest moment of my life was to win the Great British Entrepreneur Award for Service Industries in the North East. I was up against one of the bigger corporate recruitment firms and I thought there was no chance I would win. I really felt like I won for my achievements in business, and not because I achieved those while being disabled. It was important to me that my disability didn’t come into it: I want to be recognised on the same level as my peers. I don’t want any special considerations. Yes, my disability can be acknowledged as part of my journey, but I don’t want it to be the reason that I am awarded something when competing against able-bodied entrepreneurs.

If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?

I want people to understand that we have the same capacity for business as able-bodied people, and the same potential. We have the same ambitions and we too dream of success.

Our lives, hopes and dreams don’t just stop because we are disabled.

Who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by anyone who overcomes challenges to be successful. There are too many to mention specifically, but there are many people and groups of people who don’t stand on a level playing field in business for a variety of reasons, such as gender, race and so on. I’m inspired by anyone who, understanding that they will have to work harder than anyone else, still fights forward and doesn’t give up.

Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?

Just Fucking Do It by Noor Hibbert