Fired Up | An Interview with Bisila Bokoko
Josefina Bonsundy-Nvumba, Founder, Rootencial 24 July 2018
From delivering keynotes speeches in Switzerland and South Africa to establishing literacy projects in Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe, Bisila Bokoko has her hands in a myriad of development projects – and her finger on the pulse of global entrepreneurship.
Bisila’s long, varied career and incredible insight into entrepreneurship have gained her remarkable success, making her a genuinely inspiring business leader. As the former Executive Director of the Spain-US Chamber of Commerce in New York, she made her way to the top by cultivating relationships with foreign heads of state and international business leaders.
Yet, Bisila always felt that her future existed outside of the traditional norms of leadership. After a transformative moment in her career, Bisila decided to take a bold step and launch her consulting firm in 2012. BBES (Bisila Bokoko Embassy International) is a New York-based business development agency that represents, promotes and markets brands internationally.
Josefina Bonsundy-Nvumba, a founder of Rootencial, spoke to Bisila about how she discovered her passion, her most significant achievements and how she overcame challenges along the way.
Today you're a successful businesswoman, an inspirational speaker, a mentor for young people and a philanthropist, but how did your career begin?
I was born in Valencia, Spain, but my parents both come from Equatorial Guinea. I studied Law and Economics at university in Spain, and really enjoyed the legal aspect of my studies in particular. But when I graduated, I was baffled; I loved studying the law, but I knew the day-to-day life of a lawyer wasn’t for me.
I started to get interested in International Business; that resonated much more with me. I was very fortunate to get an international business internship with the Valencian Export Institute (IVEX) - I wanted them to send me abroad, as far away from Spain as possible, but I ended up being posted back home to Valencia! The next year, I received an offer to move out to New York with IVEX - and I’ve been here ever since, 18 years now!
How did you discover what you’re passionate about and the career you wanted to pursue? What are the first steps you took to turn your passion into a job?
I feel like I invented my career. I didn’t choose to become an entrepreneur, it was forced upon me.
I loved working as the Executive Director of the Spain - US Chamber of Commerce, but I lost my job in 2012. That forced me to go out on my own, I was rebellious and not able to follow the rules, I like to do things my way. I realised that I could be fired from any other job, and therefore had to create something myself. So losing my job helped me so much. It’s one of the things I’m most grateful for in my life.
“Sometimes in life, when you’re not able to move yourself, the universe moves you.”
Some people have always known they wanted to be entrepreneurs since they were born, but that wasn’t the case with me. I wanted the security of a regular salary. I was terrified, but I just did it anyway. I’m still terrified every day, but you learn to live with your fears, to live with the unknown. You can have a vision, a plan, or a strategy. What you cannot predict as an entrepreneur is a future. I came to enjoy the feeling of insecurity and unpredictability. My belief in a higher power that is God was fundamental, too.
How has your identity and cultural background influenced your work?
In a significant way; you look in the mirror every day, and you know where you come from. Our history of colonisation and slavery is in our DNA. We can’t separate ourselves from that, and it gives you a different relationship with the world and identity.
I was the only black person at my high school, and also at the university. My parents told me about the extra responsibility I had because of that; 'You have to work two or three times harder than the others, to continuously prove yourself and your capability. You either give up, or you make your mark no matter what.' So for me, my identity has been an enormous advantage.
What were the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome to achieve success? How did you overcome them?
When you’re successful very early in life, you don’t know how to handle it. I was very arrogant at times; you believe you have it all. I wasn’t listening enough, just running around stressed, power hungry, never stopping to think about where I was going. My identity as the daughter of an immigrant contributed to that too. I had a position that most black people don’t have. I took responsibility not only for myself but for the whole continent; I put that weight on my shoulders.
I took a year off to reflect.
The moment I realised I was not my job, and that I could be myself - and create value out of who I am - that brought me so much joy.
I’ve tried through my journey as an entrepreneur to develop values and to become a person I’m proud of.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received? What advice would you give young people with a similar background to yours?
Somebody once told me that you must be kind to everyone. You’ll see the same people on your way up, as you do when you’re going down, so treat everyone as a human being and connect with them, because then in the bad times you’ll always have someone there for you. It’s easy to have friends and support when everything is great, but less so when things get tough. You need a support system to keep you connected, to have someone who’ll always tell you the truth.
For most people of African descent, we think we can only shine through our jobs - through established professions, like architects and lawyers.
We need to think outside the box and be ready for freefall, to jump outside our comfort zone.
I’m no different to you or anyone else reading this. Everyone is capable of living their dream. You have to lose your fear of failure.