Please note: This interview has been edited for increased clarity and readability. Bisman Deu’s views are still fully represented.
Bisman Deu graduated from the University of Warwick in 2019 having read Economics, Politics and International Studies. Her first achievements, however, far precede university. After inventing a building material made from rice waste called ‘Green Wood’ at age 15, she was named as Forbes 30 under 30 in 2017. Bisman is a vocal campaigner for social entrepreneurship and women’s rights, having spoken at the Nexus Global Youth Summit, the Women Economic Forum and the Global CEO Summit to name a few.
In this Alumni Salon talk, Bisman reflects on the concept of being "comfortably uncomfortable" and explores the psychology of venturing into uncharted territories. Drawing from personal experiences, particularly moving from the UK to India, she emphasises how discomfort became a catalyst for resilience and the ability to observe opportunities that others might overlook in their comfort zones.
Bisman highlights three key lessons learned in navigating uncharted territories: the significance of the people one surrounds oneself with, the need to keep sight of personal values amidst failures, and the importance of developing a specialised ‘hip-pocket’ skill that sets one apart.
The talk spreads a powerful message about diversity and inclusion, with insights into the power of standing out as an individual but also about raising awareness on the importance of belonging. Through leading by example, embracing our uniqueness, and fostering open environments, we can discover the extent of our potential.
You emphasise the importance of leaving a trail for people. How does the impact you leave on someone else factor into your decision-making and daily life?
Leaving a trail for people definitely becomes the end goal of everything that I do and how I can help people out. When I make a decision, I look at how it is going to affect people down the line, and if it is even right.
So, I do definitely think about impact, but that's not the first thing. The first thing is to get the job done, and hopefully, that is being wrapped and encased into making a wider impact.
How did your early experiences of moving to India at age 11 and dealing with the unfamiliarity of such an experience shape your perspective on embracing the unknown?
When you move from one country to another, whatever the age may be, it's always a teething period where you wonder, where do you fit in, in this world? As mentioned in my speech, it laid the foundation for me to be quite resilient and embrace unfamiliarity. It made me very observant, to be honest with you. Growing up in a place, you end up taking things that you see around you for granted simply because they exist in your surroundings. But when you go into an unfamiliar territory, everything around you is so new, and because of the newness of something, you end up observing things with more intent than others do. So, I think that's what I did.
In what ways was your family instrumental in allowing you to thrive in that environment?
They have always been my biggest supporters, and honestly the backbone of everything that I do. My actions are driven by the want to make them proud, as cheesy as that sounds. My dad has always been someone who has motivated me to, for lack of a better term, charter unknown territories. He himself, from India, went to study in the United States to read computer science, and I think that really laid the foundation for me to have someone to look up to and share my experiences and learn from.
Moving onto Green Wood, were there any initial setbacks when developing the prototypes and if so, how did you bounce back from them? How do you think people can learn from these experiences?
I definitely had a fair few setbacks, not only when developing Green Wood but also when trying to take it to a lot of people once I had conceptualised it. The way that I dealt with the setbacks was to believe in what I was doing and that I was actually solving a problem.
People say that entrepreneurs have blinders on and have laser focus. Sometimes that is important; pollution was a problem I truly wanted to solve, and when you are guided by something that you believe in, you really want to make that change. And as much as people will give you negativity and will give you their opinions, having that inside voice telling you this is the right thing to do is always going to make you step up to the plate.
Surrounding yourself with mentors is so important to validate your ideas because, as an entrepreneur, you have blinders on. So when you try to sell your idea to the people and community that you really trust, and they give you their expertise and feedback, listening to that and responding is important.
What were the initial impressions when you introduced your idea to farmers and your entourage?
To be honest with you, it was a very mixed-bag experience, because many times some people get it, and some people don't. That's just the way the world works, and you have to move on with it. It was mostly a positive experience. I also leaned on the teachers that were there in my school at the time and they liked the idea. When you present an idea with very structured thought, ‘this is the problem, this is what I want to do, this is how I'm going about it’, people end up believing it more rather than having a very whimsical ‘I want to solve air pollution’.
I entered a competition called the Social Innovation Relay with Green Wood as my project and won out of 43,000 students. So, this really validated my business idea and got lots of people lined up.
How and when did you discover that your hip-pocket skill is thinking creatively about problems?
I don't think I had a light bulb moment. It's an undercurrent of what you're passionate about or truly good at. Some people are so good at communicating that this becomes your hip-pocket skill. I discovered it by taking some time away, asking myself: ‘What am I good at, and how do I approach problems?’. I realised I think a lot about what something is going to look like in 10 years, or even how I could present it in a more creative manner. It is through those little things that you try to make sense of the way that you think.
Once you realise that you have a hip-pocket skill, how you hone it is up to you. So, I end up talking to my friends and sitting down together. We would ask ourselves, ‘What would the future experience be of airports if we didn't have to use passports and instead used biometric data to go through the gates?’ etc. I try to sharpen my mind and my brain through blue-sky thinking, and taking it to work; I can truly say that that's made quite a big difference in the way I work and think in my daily life.
People often struggle with navigating self-doubt. We put up psychological barriers, afraid of taking that leap into the unknown. How can we overcome those fears and take that first step into the unknown?
You often dip your toe into safe water with family or friends, but there are some instances in life that push you into unfamiliarity. For me, it was my parents moving to India. That was a huge shift in my surroundings, and I had to come to terms with that. You need self-belief to the point where you're confident in what you bring to the table because your opinion is so unique.
Overcoming fear is something that you have to practise, it never comes spontaneously. It's not you do it once, and that's it. When I was 15, I was so scared. I didn't believe in what I was saying. I didn't want to be in rooms because I thought ‘Does my opinion even matter?’. Over the past 10 years, that has rippled on to me getting opportunities. I interned at the World Bank in Washington DC, and through someone I met, I ended up getting a small stint at the BBC. Through making connections, you become surrounded by amazing people who influence the way you think, making it easier to navigate unknown territories.
You are a strong believer in the need for more female entrepreneurship. How has this shaped your experience in the workplace?
We view empowerment as a one-time jolt of inspiration that you give people, but sometimes it's a very subtle undercurrent of motivation. So, I think I am very fortunate to be surrounded by really strong and powerful women at work who have the same ideas and drive in life that I do. It’s the simple things, such as if you are in a meeting, making a conscious effort to ask other women their opinions and giving a voice to those who are quieter. It’s not about telling women they should quit their jobs and start a full-time business. It’s about giving them that confidence in their day-to-day lives that's going to lead them to make bigger changes in the future.
How do you think your international experiences living or working in different countries made you who you are today? How important do you think these international perspectives are when trying to take a leap into the unknown?
International experiences open your eyes up to be more accepting of other people's opinions. We all come from really different backgrounds, and being appreciative of that when you're talking to people is so inspiring for me. I'm so fortunate to be able to have travelled and spoken to so many people that have given me diversity of thought, which I think makes this world so fascinating to be in.
It also gives you confidence as you're able to talk to people from different walks of life. From a business perspective, this makes you cognisant of people's needs. One of the most amazing things that has come out of it for me is finding mentors in different countries. Every country has its own obstacles, every career has its own obstacles, every culture has its own obstacles. But being able to connect with them and find true friendship has been such a rewarding experience.
Many students are happy to get help from fellow students but are afraid to ask people in more senior positions. We're in an age where so many of us are on LinkedIn, but it might feel too formal for some. How do you think we can navigate this?
In terms of asking for advice and mentors, you're right. We do make a lot of connections on LinkedIn. Networking has become such a tick-off-the-list exercise. So, you send someone a request on LinkedIn, and they become your virtual connection. However, translating those connections into real life is so important.
Mentorship is a two-way learning experience in my mind, from the people I seek mentorship from or I mentor myself. Do not be afraid to give people you know something in return. If I come across a really interesting article within the field of a senior connection, I don't shy away from sending it to them; it's mutual sharing of information. We often ask questions that we already know the answers to but are afraid of asking the hard-hitting questions so being transparent with your mentors is important.
There are so many ways to meet different groups of people. I am a part of Nexus London, which is this amazing society that brings together people from different walks of life to discuss various topics. You need to seek those connections rather than just sitting behind a laptop and sending a LinkedIn request to them.
What are your future plans and aspirations in the context of exploring uncharted territory?
This is futuristic thinking! I am taking a sabbatical from work for three months, which I would not have thought about doing before because I too have been following conventionality where I've thought this is my path. I finally took the plunge and decided to go back to India to spend some time with my parents. While going back to my parents is not an unknown territory, not working for three months is.
Happiness is a variable that many times is discounted when you're journeying to the top, so I am going to take time to rejuvenate and gather new perspectives. I think not knowing what's next is amazing, because this is going to end up taking you to uncharted territories.
Transcribed and edited by Thomas Loubeyres.
The views and opinions presented in this interview belong to Bisman Deu — not Thomas Loubeyres, nor TEDxWarwick.
If you have any questions concerning the interview, or opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email email@example.com.