Deborah Smith was on her degree placement in Africa when she had the idea for a product that might help people walking on rural roads at night to be more visible to drivers.
Her degree at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) in Geography and Environmental Management gave her the chance to go to Swaziland for four weeks. There she measured pollution levels in the Komati river to assess a possible link to nearby sugar cane plantations.
But it was when Smith drove home after sunset that she noticed how difficult it was to see pedestrians on narrow, unlit roads. “At the end of every day we tried to get home before dark because you couldn’t see cattle or pedestrians,” she recalls. Later, during a trip to South Africa, the car she was travelling in almost ran over two pedestrians wearing black clothing who were walking on a road with no lighting.
Smith knew that reflectors could make a difference to pedestrian safety. “I wanted people to access more visible materials, but knew that selling reflectors in local shops wouldn’t work, as the little money people have, they spend on food,” says the entrepreneur. She therefore came up with the idea of incorporating reflective material into the packaging of everyday consumer goods, such as bread or tea.
After returning to UWE Bristol, Smith pitched her idea at Pitch and Pie, a yearly University-run event for students to pitch a business idea to an audience. “This served as a springboard because afterwards I was encouraged to take part in the University’s eight-week self-employed summer internship,” she says.
The internship provides students with £1000 to try out an idea for a project or business. After gaining a place on the scheme, Smith was given access to free desk space at the University, where she researched how to progress her idea commercially.
A mentor provided through the scheme advised her on how best to apply for funding and how to pitch to corporations like Unilever or Coca-Cola. The adviser also provided her with contacts, including a health professional with expertise on road safety.
Later, Smith presented her project – which she named ‘GLOW’ – during one of the University’s Bristol Distinguished Address Series (BDAS) talks. These lectures feature industry leaders talking about topical subjects. Smith’s presentation before the main talk, gave her the opportunity to present to students, staff and local businesses, and receive invaluable feedback.
Smith says her participation in the University’s various enterprise activities has taught her how better to network, the importance of using social media in business, and allowed her to push herself outside of her comfort zone. “I don’t think this idea would have gone any further than my head if it hadn’t been for UWE,” she says. “The biggest thing I learned was not to give up, and to look at different aspects to approaching a problem,” adds Smith.
As well as pursuing her business idea, the mother of two has gone on to study for a Masters in Environmental Health at UWE Bristol. She is also involved in BoxED, a UWE Bristol scheme involving postgraduates who go into schools to inspire and advise on the possibilities of higher education, and to help pupils map out their potential career paths.