Bisila Bokoko: Why women should support each other

Bisila Bokoko is an entrepreneur, a speaker, and philanthropist. Amongst other things, she has a goal to reach out to as many rural areas in Africa as possible and build libraries...

Bisila Bokoko is an entrepreneur, a speaker, and philanthropist. Amongst other things, she has a goal to reach out to as many rural areas in Africa as possible and build libraries there – something we really need in this part of the world. She tells GuardianWoman how she plans to do this and so much more in today’s interview. 

You are called an entrepreneur, a speaker, and philanthropist amongst others. In your own words, how would you describe Bisila Bokoko?
I am a renaissance woman in progress, in the business of doing good and with the passion to share.

Who are some of your role models in business and enterprise, and why?
Oprah Winfrey is my total icon and I love her spiritual approach to business and her aim to share and help others and give back. She launched many people’s careers.

Divine Ndhulukuka – I got the chance to meet her due to my position as a chair member of Empretec and we awarded her in 2014. I met her in Zimbabwe and spent some time with such a brilliant woman who started business in her kitchen.
Iman – She became an advocate of the African beauty and built a business out of it. I adore her directness.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I truly admire writers and I love her work and how she marketed herself.

Let’s talk about the Bisila Bokoko African Literacy Project (BBALP) – what’s the idea behind it, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
The idea is to promote the love for books among the young population in Africa.  I am an avid reader myself and I learnt lots of things through books. They have been my best friends and advisors, so I would like to share those tools that allow me to be where I am now, with my people. My goal will be to reach out to as many rural areas in Africa as possible and build libraries there.

In your own honest estimation, would you really say that Africa is ‘rising?’
Absolutely yes, and I am very excited with the Africa that I see today. Each trip to the continent confirms my beliefs. There is still a long way to go though. I have lots of faith in the new generation and anytime I interact with them in the continent I am pleasantly surprised by their amazing energy, and at this new era of technology. Africa has a lot to say and it has a tremendous opportunity to position itself.

Having observed the reading culture of some of these countries, what would you say poses a major barrier to them developing an interest for books?
First of all, reading culture starts at home. We are an oral tradition continent and we haven’t kept records of our old traditions in writing, therefore, this has an impact in our desire to read. The habit to read starts in the family; if the parents read the kids read. That is why at BBALP we make reading a family affair because we are aware of this lack in our customs. Another issue is the limited access to books. This is why we try to bridge these circumstances by bringing the books to their locations.

As you climbed the ladder to the next level of your career, what were some of the challenges you faced during the growth journey and how did you handle them?
One of the biggest challenges for me was my own self. Sometimes we complain about the circumstances that are around us, but the reality is that how we face the situations makes a difference. How you see yourself is key and how you think and feel. I faced lack of confidence issues, financial hardships, wrong decisions, big mistakes, and all you can do is to go through it and take it easy without living in guilt. You should be gentle with yourself at all times and have compassion on yourself and others around you who might become stones in your road. Also, you must ask yourself this question; what is the worst thing that could happen? And then you realise that while you are still breathing, there is always a chance.

There are some typical stereotypes about women charting the entrepreneurial path. Have you had to deal with any of such in your field?
I believe you are asking me if these things that people say about women resonates with me? No, I didn’t have to deal with it because I never resonate with that, so I didn’t integrate it in my belief system. I was only an entrepreneur who happened to be a woman, and I embrace my femininity at all times.
If you are asking me if I had to deal with other women and if I had to deal with someone who falls into that stereotype, yes, I did many years ago but I learnt this kind of relationships can be transformed to positive.

The word ‘achievement’, for a lot of people, is quite relative. Would you say you have achieved as much as you envisioned while starting out in business?
Uhhmmmm, yes and no, I think all I envisioned is happening, only that it doesn’t happen as fast as you want. And yes, achievement is relative because in my case I feel I am not there yet. Therefore it is possible that it is that energy which triggers me to continue moving forward.

Do you consider yourself a serial entrepreneur? And are you starting any new enterprise soon?
Now, I am concentrating my efforts on my career path as a speaker in order to inspire others to follow their dreams and to share a methodology that was key for my achievements, and I will be thrilled to share more in the continent especially among women and millennials.

Let’s go back a little bit. In 2012, you suddenly found yourself without a job – how did you handle that, and what did it teach you about life?
This was one of the most shocking and painful moments of my career but also the biggest blessing. I am who I am today due to that particular event. I handled it with faith. I went through a major inner transformation, books were the biggest source of information at that time and I had great help from my closest ones. It taught me that if I wanted to change things and people around me I needed to start by changing myself. And I learnt to stay positive and surrounded myself with positive people.

Talking about your philanthropy, can you share with us some of the major projects, if any, that you’re working on at the moment?
My main philanthropic project and goal now is to build a library in Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa. Besides I do tons of mentoring when my schedule permits.

Tell us about your love for wine! How did it lead to the birth of Bisila Wines?
My love for the wine world started while I was an intern at The Valencian Institute of Export and I worked closely with wine makers who were marketing their wines internationally. How we started it is a long story. My brother was trying to become a father and he wasn’t successful (eventually he became a father) and he always said ‘when I have a child, if it is a girl, her name will be Bisila.’ At that time he was at the board of a wine company and he proposed to them to create a wine with my name and let me participate in the production process due to my previous experiences in that sector. I created a wine that represents my tri-cultural background and also is feminine and enhances the elegance of Africans and products created by Africans. The first years were very tough for our partners and us because we lacked the experience in the industry and it was our first attempt as entrepreneurs. Last year was a great year. We had profit and we bought a winery from the XVI Century and that is where Bisila Wines is located in Spain.
Once in an interview with Huffington Post, you called yourself a ‘cultural hybrid’. What, in your opinion, is the most interesting thing about being a part of different cultures?
To be part of different cultures has been essential for me to have a global vision, and feel as a world citizen. The world is my home and everywhere I go I feel as if I am among family. I see everyone as a part of me. That has been key in my development in my career and to connect with different people around the world and make business with them.

How do you unwind, and where are your favourite travel destinations?
Spending time with my family and friends, reading and traveling! I find each place very interesting; Europe I find it enchanting, Africa is pure magic, Asia is a place of wonders, Latin America is so flavourful…

As one who desires to see women excel, what are some of the leadership qualities women should develop to break glass ceilings?
Yes, you are right. I think women should support each other and realise that by helping other women you help yourself.  To get ahead and reach the leadership level you want, you need to champion and market yourself. That means proactively managing every step of your career, arm yourself with a strong network, and a mentor if possible. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone and you might find new zones of opportunity.

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