“It’s difficult to choose just one label,” Bisila Bokoko tells me when we meet at The Ritz in Madrid recently. She has already greeted several tables of friends on the way to our interview. Indeed, it this facility to engage people that led to one of her latest ventures – creating libraries for youngsters in Africa, the land of her grandparents.
Called The Bisila Bokoko African Literacy Project (BBALP), it provides books and scholarships for some 10 children a year between the ages of 6 to 10 years. And it happened one-on-one, in 2009, when she travelled to Africa for the first time. “I met the Chief of Kokofu and Ghana, and he appointed me ‘Queen Development mother,’” she explained, and so the library was developed to foster education. She posted news of the project on her Facebook account. And the project grew.
“I was on the way to a World Economic Forum event in CapeTown, South Africa, in 2010,” she remembers,” and a young man sent me a message through my Facebook account explaining he was a lawyer and wanted to help the kids in his village of Chirumanzo (near Harare) get an education. He took a bus all the way from Harare to Cape Town, traveling for two days. And together we expanded the library and scholarship project to other countries in Africa. He did everything he said he would – really got it up and running, and it’s still going on even though right now he’s studying in New Orleans on a scholarship.” The children read and study English and their own rural language in the countries where BBALP operates: Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda. “But if this one young man hadn’t reached out to me through Facebook, none of this would have happened.” It wouldn’t have happened had she not been the sort of person who would respond to such an idea and approach, either.
The money for these sorts of non-profit ventures comes from the rest of her eponymous empire, BBES (Bisila Bokoko Embassy International). There are fashion projects, business consulting, inspirational speaking engagements, and a wine business in Spain. It’s the enterprising energy she gets from living in New York for the past 15 years.
“I went to New York initially as an intern with the Valencia Institute of Export (IVEX) in 2000,” she says of the posting that took her away from her native Valencia. “I was determined to stay in New York once the internship was up, so I enrolled at CCNY in 2001 and obtained a Masters degree in 2003. Meanwhile, the IVEX promoted me to Director and then, in 2005, the Spanish-America Camber of Commerce hired me as its Executive Director in,” she remembers. She’d already received an MBA from the University of San Pablo in Madrid and a certificate of British law from the University of Manchester.
“Circumstances beyond my control changed in Madrid in 2012, and I found myself out of a job,” she remembers. “But I was determined to stay in New York, and so I decided to become my own boss, and created BBES.”
She’d also started her wine business in 2010, with her brother as a partner. It did not go well. ”We lost $100,000 in three years,” she laments. “That was my savings, my bonuses…so we joined with another winery, Ladron de Lunas.” Her wine business today – known as Bisila Wines – makes red, white and sparkling wines, mostly for export. “China is our biggest market,” she confides, “and then Germany. Then we make a range of tables wine for weddings and for supermarkets such as El Corte Ingles.”
Global Business Development
BBES, her New York-based global business development company, consults in fashion, lifestyle, arts and culture, largely for Spanish companies looking to enter the U.S. Clients to-date include Pikolinos, Stand 7, Agatha Ruiz de la Prada , and the Liceu Barcelona Opera House. “Art and culture and fashion historically have not been well-marketed in Spain,” she opines. “We have Zara and Carolina Herrera and Iberica jamon, but Spain really doesn’t yet market brands. And in the U.S. they do. I did an exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum around Salvador Dali on behalf of the Spanish-American Chamber of Commerce in 2006. And I kept those kinds of things going after I left the job in 2012 – a mix of fashion, wine, arts and culture.”
It was a leap into the void: no steady job, and two young children to support. “I’d been helping entrepreneurs do business but on behalf of the Spanish state, so it was the ‘safe side’ of entrepreneurship,” she remembers. “Now I was taking the risks of an entrepreneur, and I was really scared.”
Today she finds herself with a real interest in bringing business to Africa. “People forget the amount of opportunities there are in Africa,” she says. “This is not the Africa of the 1970s. We never had an industrial revolution in Africa and we may be 100 years behind the other countries, but today there is technology. A Maasai tribesman may not be able to vote, but he has an iPhone and he can send a text on What’s App.”
The name “Bisila” means “Mary” – spiritual guide and protector of the people in Equatorial Guinea, land of her roots. “It’s the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa,” she points out. Her great grandmother Dona Pilar, Minister of Culture in the homeland, opened the pathway to Spain by buying a vacation home in Valencia. “Then eventually my parents decided to emigrate to Valencia, and that’s where I was born.” Bisila holds Spanish and American citizenship. Her own children were born in the U.S. and are American citizens.
She also has 120,000 Facebook friends, 17,000 Twitter followers and another 8,000 on Instagram. But she still works her magic at the grass roots level, inspiring one person at a time.
By Shellie Karabell| Forbes contributor