The Afro Spaniard says racism is all about perception and tells us that women can indeed have it all
It is very rare indeed to meet a successful woman in business who is not only at the top of her game professionally, but also strikes a chord with you on a basic level. The first I ever heard of Bisila Bokoko was when she managed Spanish designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada’s break into the Nigerian fashion scene in 2014 as the brand ambassador. She’s like the Olivia Pope of the business world. You’ve got a business that needs to expand into new markets? Bisila’s your girl. She’s been doing this for over 15 years which is why she’s trusted by big brands to help them make that transition from Spain to beyond.
Watching her speak, she gives off this effortless impression that she’s one of those whose for whom success has come easily, but when you dig deeper, there’s more to this successful entrepreneur than meets the eye and a whole lot more young women in business can learn from her attitude to life and remarkable success.
Bisila Bokoko is the former head of the US-Spain Chamber of Commerce, where she held the role of Director for 7 years. She is the first black person (and only woman) to have held such an esteemed role in Spain.
I can understand why she made headlines during her tenure at the Chamber. Tall and elegantly dressed as she perches on a sofa at the Westbury Hotel in Bond Street, Bisila’s fashion sense is impeccable and I can’t help but admire her.
She smiles, telling me fashion has always been her first love. These days she spends her days heading up her own cooperate agency, Bisila Bokoko Embassy Services International (BBESI) in New York. The boutique service helps bridge the gap between a myriad of international markets including gastronomy, fashion, beauty, lifestyle, arts and culture with the aim of representing international interests and helping brands take their business to the next level. Bisila has also received recognition and awards for her work in Philanthropy with the Bisila Bokoko African Literacy Project which builds libraries in villages in Africa. The charity already has a presence in Zimbabwe, Ghana, Uganda and Kenya with plans to take the project to more countries.
Born to parents from Equatorial Guinea who moved to Spain in the 70’s, Bisila started her career as an intern for the Spanish Government at the regional office in Valencia, working her way up to managerial level where she was in charge of marketing and promoting the city. Four weeks after having her second baby, she was offered the role of the Director of the US- Spanish Chamber of Commerce- a role she says changed her life and helped mould her into the amazing businesswoman she is now. “I was actually approached by the previous director who said to me, I think you’d be great for my role and I remember saying to him, I’ve just had a baby 4 weeks ago and I have another one waiting for me at home, how on earth am I going to be able to take on this on?
The prospect was daunting for someone whose former position mainly involved making decisions on how to allocate money to promote the city of Valencia. Her new role would involve being in charge of a much bigger office, larger staff and the added responsibility of generating income and not just spending it. “I had no idea what to do or how to go about it and for the first three months, I pretty much didn’t step out of my office than to breastfeed my baby because I felt I had to learn everything about this role and listen to the people who had been there before me because they knew more than I did. I realised that I couldn’t do this on my own, so I made the best use of my team and delegated as much as possible.”
Bisila’s new role would see her lead many Spanish delegations to various countries, building new relationships for Spanish businesses internationally; helping brands including Zara, Desigual and Mango and companies in various other sectors break into new markets. Many of those times, she was the only person of colour and often the only female too in those delegations. Was she ever daunted by this? “Yes, of course,” she tells me. “As a woman and a black person, we put this pressure on ourselves to prove to others that we’re worth it when we’re given an opportunity such as the one I had.” Bisila’s recipe for being a successful ‘lady boss’ in the midst of what is essentially a man’s world is to ‘embrace your feminine side’ and actually use it to your advantage.
“When we’re in leadership positions, women tend to forget about themselves. We neglect the feminine side and try to be like men. I think you have to balance the two; the feminine and masculine energy because they actually work quite well together. I bring a lot of feminine energy to my leadership roles and just let it flow. Women have amazing capabilities, and when we use the male energy we focus, but you then stop the feminine energy that lets you see the bigger picture.”
“The first time I ever headed a boardroom meeting, I was in a room with only two women and all these men in the room were almost double my age, I was only 30 at the time. I remember I prayed before going in as I was a little intimidated. You get into this huge room with about 40 people asking you questions and you have to convince them that their decision to hire you is justified. As black women we put this pressure on ourselves because we’re black and we’re women. You feel like you have to do better than everybody else. I said to myself it’s not even fair to put this kind of pressure on myself, so I released the pressure by just seeing myself as a professional person. I interact with a lot of men in my work and I never really had the feeling that someone was only picturing me as a black person or as a woman. I realised that it was really about my perception. If I change my perception about myself then people would treat me the way I deserve to be treated.”
How about racism I ask her? Unlike the UK, the population of people from black ethnic minority groups in Spain is considerably less. Immigrants from sub Saharan countries represent only 4% of the immigrant population in Spain, making up a very small minority of a new surge of foreigners coming to live in the country. Growing up in 1970’s Spain, the 41 year old says she hardly experienced racism in the country. “I always asked get asked this question about whether or not I experienced racism. Yes, I did in my early years and I think it had more to do with me.” (She pauses).
“I’ve discovered through my journey that when you start thinking that you’re not good enough because people are labelling you as black- we are a mirror of what is inside us so this is what you’ll portray outside. As Africans we have so much to offer, why shouldn’t we be confident? We shouldn’t think we’re less than others. I never feel like I don’t deserve the best. I totally deserve the best treatment, the best respect, beautiful places like everybody else and that’s why when I enter a room, that’s what I exude, I don’t feel like anyone will treat me differently.”
Spain is not like the UK where you have so many Africans. I was born in 1974 and my father said that he was the only black person pushing the stroller on the street. Also when I was going to school, we were like a circus attraction in the school. They’d tell us to go from class to class so everybody can see you. I lost my fears to being the centre of attraction from back then. Besides Spaniards are extremely friendly people. I have an amazing relationship with Spain and I’ve always felt like I really belong.”
Nowadays, when she’s not at home with her 2 children and husband, she’s running her business empire which also now includes a wine company- Bisila Wines. Other times, she’s working on her Not for profit foundation, and then she has other commitments; like writing for the Huffington Post where she details her experiences globe-trotting around the world in aid of charity and on behalf of her clients. She seems to have her hands in so many pies, so how on earth does she stay on top of things?
“You just have to prioritise,” she says. “I feel the busier you are the more organised you have to be. My months are organised ahead with July, August and Christmas blocked out for family time. I’ve learnt to have at least two hours a day for myself- I do Pilates, running or read a book. I used to be a workaholic, sleeping for only three hours a day sometimes, but I guess with age everything changes. In my 30’s, I was like running and didn’t even know where I was running to.”
I think the 30’s are a very important time for a woman, because you have the time to do everything; to have kids, to build your momentum in your career so yes, you do sleep less and work more and reap the benefits in your 40’s hopefully. I’m one of those who believe that we can have it all. Women sometimes think oh, if I want to have a family, I have to put off the career, but there is never a right moment, you never have enough money and you’re never in the right place because when you get there, you want more. Just do things in the moment you feel like you have to do it and don’t wait for the right time because there is no right moment. Life takes you to the right places and sometimes you just have to relax and enjoy the ride.”