Daughter of a leading, frequently Brussels-based English antitrust lawyer and a Jamaican mother, Francesca Pheasant’s horizons were always global in their scope. She grew up in Belgium, attended a French-speaking school and found the culture shock of moving to the UK when she was ten to be a jarring experience.
“I found that traditional, uniform-wearing English schools didn’t suit me at all, neither my primary school nor the Royal in Haslemere, whose motto seemed to be that they turned out eligible young ladies,” Francesca recalls with an almost audible shudder. “Then, rather wonderfully, I found out from a friend of a friend about Bedales, which was thought to be far more up my street. When I went there for my interview, I knew straight away that I wanted to be here, and I ended up starting a few weeks later in the middle of the second term of Block 3.”
Bedales proved to be precisely what Francesca was looking for. “Being able to call my teachers by their first names was a feeling of being liberated again and I really enjoyed being judged by my performance rather than by how I dressed; the lack of a hierarchical system was so refreshing,” she says. “When I wasn’t on the hockey field, I spent practically every afternoon I could in the design workshop, which is where I felt most at home – I won a design award at my primary school, much to my surprise but this workshop was like a new world opening up for me.”
Central to the furtherance of Francesca’s design talents were the duo of Mo Halli and Martin Box. “Mo was absolutely lovely, a wonderful man,” Francesca enthuses. “And as for Martin, he was just my hero. He was quiet, down to earth, even unassuming, but you knew how much talent lay behind that modest exterior. He was my most influential teacher and his approval meant a lot to me. I wasn’t at my most confident in those days, which might surprise those people who think that I usually seem fairly sure of myself, but the feeling that I was pretty good at this made me feel alive.”
Being able to call my teachers by their first names was a feeling of being liberated again and I really enjoyed being judged by my performance rather than by how I dressed; the lack of a hierarchical system was so refreshing
Hockey was the other important aspect of Francesca’s extra-curricular life at Bedales and she insists that the school’s less than stellar reputation for sporting excellence is not entirely deserved. “Oh, certainly our boys were pretty rubbish at football and cricket but the girls’ hockey and netball teams were actually great,” she chuckles, knowing that this is still an ongoing debate between her friends. “The boys challenged us one time to a netball game, as they wanted to prove how easy it was…we absolutely hammered them!”
The talent for developing long-lasting friendships for which Bedales is often noted was at the core of school life for Francesca. “One thing that always impressed me about the school was how comfortable most of its students are around the opposite sex,” she reflects. “My male friends at Bedales were like a load of additional brothers to the two that I already have. I was always interested in the way in which people related to each other and as I got higher up the school, I became a peer counsellor.”
Initial uncertainty about Francesca’s choice of A-Levels was finally resolved in favour of French, design and art. “I enjoyed art, but it was always going to be the design that pointed the way to my future, or so I thought,” she explains. “I applied to art school and was comfortable in my own mind that I was ready to leave Bedales with the fondest of memories and get on with the next adventure.”
At the eleventh hour, Francesca changed her mind about where that next adventure would take place. “I come from an entire family of Oxford linguists and I started to feel the need to prove to myself that I could also handle an academic degree,” she says. “My parents were trekking in the Himalayas when I told them about my change of plan and that’s how and why I ended up at Newcastle University to study French and Spanish.”
I had a good time [at Newcastle], it was basically an extension of life at Bedales, and I gave me the opportunity to live and work in Paris and Barcelona and travel South America
Francesca enjoyed Newcastle. “Yes, I had a good time there, it was basically an extension of life at Bedales, and I gave me the opportunity to live and work in Paris and Barcelona and travel South America” she remembers. “After I graduated, I moved to London and started working for a private members travel club, which allowed me to use my languages. The problem was that I really missed being creative so I did a short design course and started working for an interiors and furniture company. It was there that I decided that I needed to dive a bit deeper into design if I was really going to make a future out of it, which is why I finally enrolled at Kingston University and did a degree in product and furniture design whilst working part-time.”
“It was a good experience,” Francesca continues. “But I had always had a particular interest in sustainable design and I was slightly frustrated at the restrictions that the course at Kingston placed on me, particularly having spent so much time at a design workshop as extraordinary as the one at Bedales. Martin Box constantly used to emphasise that sustainability was the future of design and I no longer wanted to make things with an expiry date; my ambition was to build things that would be of lasting use to people.”
By now, Francesca’s parents had retired to India, where they spent much of their time helping out on various NGO-sponsored projects for the benefit of their new local communities. “As my parents pointed out to me, it was clear that there were so many things that could be done for people in a place like India by someone with a design skill-set,” she says. Francesca set off to Bangalore, in the south of India, to spend part of her summer carrying out research for her dissertation, working alongside an NGO/social enterprise that provided finance, business acumen and guidance to local entrepreneurs too poor to be eligible for micro-finance. This was the sliding doors moment for Francesca, seeing how innovative the entrepreneurs were but how the lack of proper infrastructure (sewer lines, water, clean energy) their future was far from certain.
“I met some of the most amazing people while I was out there and one in particular was a designer and entrepreneur called Jacob Mathew,” Francesca explains. “He enlightened me about social design and the work of Paul Polak, founder of a Colorado-based non-profit organisation called International Development Enterprises (iDE), which develops market-led solutions for the poor through work in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), agriculture and financial inclusion projects. Jacob and Paul had a major influence on my life and upon completion of my degree I was determined to work for iDE myself.”
After graduation Francesca duly joined iDE in London, but it wasn’t long before the organisation’s arm in Bangladesh was knocking at her door. “They asked me if I fancied being out in the field and putting my design skills to work. I couldn’t wait to go,” she says. “I started in WASH team (and the rest is history, as they say), working on a project to develop six new affordable, viable and desirable WASH technologies for rural farming families, including latrines, shelters and water-filters. One of the products I helped to design the product for was Folia’s water filter paper holder, which has gone on to win many design prizes and was exhibited in the 2016 Designer of Year exhibition in London.”
Looking back to my Bedales days, that was where I was really allowed to be me
As the political situation in Bangladesh became increasingly fraught and unstable, it was apparent that the country was becoming too dangerous an environment in which to operate for Francesca. She returned to the UK but it was to be a brief stay; before long she was on her way to Cambodia to work for 17 Triggers (www.17triggers.com), a Phnom Penh-based behaviour change laboratory that seeks to use human-centred design (HCD), design thinking, research and marketing for good causes by improving systems and services and so raise awareness of how behaviours can be improved for the social benefit of all.
“We work on projects across the global in climate change, health, financial inclusion and agriculture,” Francesca explains, “solving problems for organisations through design research, ideation and developing and producing marketing strategies!” Francesca’s most significant contributions during her time with 17 Triggers have so far included working with the Women’s World Bank and BIMA micro-insurance in Cambodia and travelling regularly to Zambia to work on the Lusaka Sanitation Program, which is bringing new sewer lines, latrine designs and faecal sludge services to the city.
In such a peripatetic life, it helps to have a partner who is adaptable enough to deal with Francesca’s frequent trips from one continent to another. “My fiancé (the pair are due to be married in September 2018) is a director of international trade so he understands global working patterns but he has to put up with a lot with me,” she admits. “No sooner had he come out to Cambodia than I was heading back to Africa and I’ve told him that there are possible projects lined up for just after we’re married that will see me in Myanmar and Mexico as well!”
Her experiences of the past few years have merely whetted Francesca’s appetite for working on matters that will have a positive effect on the lives of people around the world. “My passion is women’s equality, and the role that menstrual hygiene has to play in this battle,” she observes. “For so many girls and women, their time of the month is shameful and isolating; it is a financial, cultural and educational barrier preventing them from achieving their potential. One of the things that I am working on is developing a biodegradable menstruation pad, with a circular economy business plan which will give women financial independence, allow girls to stay in school longer and so opening up the future to them. I understand the patriarchal dimension of so many of the cultures in which these women live but if the powers that be can be shown how much money and how many opportunities they’re squandering by excluding women from their rightful place, I firmly believe that we can start to unlock all the potential that is out there.”
It is all entirely in step with Francesca’s background and her education. “My family comes from all sorts of different places and they now live all over the world so I’m totally in tune with the idea of adapting to new environments,” she says. “Looking back to my Bedales days, that was where I was really allowed to be me. I like to think that the girl I was at Bedales would have been quite impressed by what I’ve achieved so far and I hope that there will be plenty of time for me to make even more of a contribution in future.”