top of page

Are You Culturally Intelligent? From Local to Global Impact (w/ Bisila Bokoko)

Updated: Feb 13

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:00:00]:

What's your unique value proposition? It's a question that every entrepreneur has to answer. And when we do, we usually talk about the same things. Our product isn't easy to replicate, and we're going after an underserved demographic. But before we think about what sets our business apart, we need to ask the same thing about ourselves. In her book We All Have A Story To Tell, Bisila Bokoko writes that our purpose is defined by who we are, not what we do. But those words didn't come easily to Bisila. Growing up in Valencia, Spain with mixed Spanish African heritage came with a heavy dose of discomfort. She remembers what it was like to be the only black girl in class.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:00:41]:

How students snickered at her when teachers call her name. She also recalls how these experiences drove her to learn more about her heritage to become what she calls culturally intelligent. Cultural intelligence has been the key to Bisila's success as an entrepreneur and change maker. She's given herself the tools to explore the bedrock of who she really is, but the benefits haven't just been personal. By becoming culturally intelligent through her company, Bisila Bokoko Embassy International or BBES, she's learned how relationship building can scale businesses like Mango and Zara. She's held monumental roles like Executive Director of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce and the Director of Valencia's foreign exchange in New York. She's been featured in Vogue, Forbes, Harper's Bazaar, and Vanity Fair. And today, she's Chair of the Executive Board of the United Nations' EMPRATEC Women in Business Awards.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:01:32]:

She even has her own Spanish wine brand. When planning for my conversation with Bisila, I seized my chance to ask questions that we've never brought up on the show before. How do you become culturally intelligent? What's the overlap between building relationships and building big businesses? And how can I discover my unique value proposition as a person and communicate that value to others? I'm Katherin Vasilopoulos, and this is And So, She Left, the podcast about incredible women entrepreneurs and the wisdom they gained beyond the corporate world. Growing up in Spain was a prolonged period of tension and self discovery for Bisila. As a shy black child born to a young couple in Valencia, she was visibly different from other kids and not very happy about it. But she was also an incredibly creative thinker even if her creative ambitions weren't exactly celebrated at home.


Bisila Bokoko [00:02:46]:

I also had a creative mind, but my family was like, you you didn't came to Africa for you to become an stress or something like that. This is what I wanted to do. So I ended up studying law and economics. And when I graduate from school, I had a huge amount of problems to get a job. No one was hiring me. It was a time where I mean, to have diverse teams were not as popular and trendy as now, and people did not know anything about cultural intelligence, of course, and how this could Impacting your business. So I spent almost two years really looking for a job, nothing was really happening, And I was very discouraged, and I was playing the victim. I was always thinking, oh, because you're a woman and you're black, they're not gonna hire you.


Bisila Bokoko [00:03:35]:

And because my parents always tell me because you're black and a woman, you're gonna have it so much more difficult than others. I got an internship in, the kind of a agency to promote trade from the region of Valencia, And then that brought me to New York. That was my passport to come to New York. It was amazing. In a few years, I became the Director of the office in New York, and my career just start growing, and I became the director of the Spain US Chamber of Commerce. And the reason why I became an entrepreneur is because I was fired. The feeling of aadness and failure that I feel at that moment, it was awful. And I put so much work into it, 16 hours, 18 hours a day.


Bisila Bokoko [00:04:24]:

And I was afraid because as a daughter for immigrants and being an immigrant myself in the states, I'm a double immigrant. One thing that we're looking for is safety, financial security. I mean, how do I feel safe in a city like New York and not having every month secure rent and expenses for food and everything? So this was a challenging time. At the same time, I got divorced the same week that I was fired. So everything was extremely hard. This is what I call that I went through the dark night of the soul because goodness. Yes. I have to definitely reinvent myself from every corner of my life and everything that I knew that it was normal, it wasn't at that moment.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:05:13]:

Yes. Because your personal and your professional life all of a sudden are caving in, and there's no more support. Like, whatever you knew before just just doesn't exist anymore. Now you have to reinvent what comes next.


Bisila Bokoko [00:05:26]:

When this moment happens that you feel that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is. And then is when I realized that instead of feeling like a failure, that I have talent to do something. And in my case, I realized that that thing was to help people to go from local to global. And I decided if I did it with some people under the umbrella of the corporate. I could continue doing it for myself, and this was how it started. I realized I could be the victim of the circumstances or I could be the creator of my own life. And I said, since I could not fire myself, I will create my own company. So when you start your entrepreneurship journey, you have to look at what is your real talent. Not only what you would like to do, but mostly at the first time that you start your own business, see what you can do well.


Bisila Bokoko [00:06:17]:

I also made a huge mistake with my consultancy firm because I did not recognize when I was tired of the business. A lot of entrepreneurs because at the beginning, we start with so much enthusiasm.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:06:32]:



Bisila Bokoko [00:06:32]:

We don't know when to stop.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:06:34]:

Yes. We don't talk about the mistakes very often. We we tend to shy away from them, and not really want to acknowledge them, but that's when all the learning happens.


Bisila Bokoko [00:06:42]:

Sometimes, there is things, they stop growing, but because you're not growing, Because you're not evolving. And that happened to me. And then I start seeing that the clients were not so happy, something major happened because I was not already 100% in that business, and for me, entrepreneurship is a self knowledge business. Really, you need to know yourself.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:06:31]:

I love what you're saying because we never had this topic before on the show, this moment of when's the time to quit? When's the time to actually say this isn't working anymore? We we tend to talk a lot about growth and scaling up and finding new markets and new products and bringing on new employees. We've never talked about, wait a second. When is the time to actually say, I need to stop doing this? And I love the idea that it's about self knowledge. Yes. How did you discover that? Tell me more about that.


Bisila Bokoko [00:07:35]:

I got tired of being a consultant in international business. And there are parts of the job that you don't like them anymore, and because entrepreneurs, we have the tendency to be orchestra, so we play all the instruments.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:07:48]:

Mhmm. Yes.


Bisila Bokoko [00:07:49]:

And I got tired of the finances. I got tired that's what is happening when I realized that it's really hard to let it go. I didn't let go the company itself, but I changed the direction. Then is when I realized that instead of being only the consultant and doing visibility studies for people and everything, I could definitely be the person who helps you to bring diversity into your company so your international business goes right. And then is when I became an speaker, and I became the storyteller. So I didn't wanna be so close to the product itself, but be close to the people who could push the product out there.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:08:33]:

Tell me about the storytelling aspect of it because that's how humans learn. At at the core of everything, we like to hear stories, and I think you're integrating that very well into your speaking, engagement. So tell me more about those steps for you.


Bisila Bokoko [00:08:29]:

I realized that since I was 23 years old, I have the stories of all the people who export products, but also I had the story of the importer, the person who's looking for products to bring them in. And I also have the stories of people who invest. I have the stories of banks buying banks. For example, a company called Marathon Oil is a company of oil in Texas. They had an issue when they went to Africa to do business in Africa. The local talent was not able to access high level positions. And they they said, you know, you have the mentality of Europe, the African, And also you spend so much time in Latin America and you understand United States because I've been here since I was a very young person. So maybe you can help us to navigate what's happening because they have 62 different nationalities working in this big company.


Bisila Bokoko [00:09:51]:

So what we did, it was different workshops about the stories. And when people understood what is missing In the roles, through the stories, they were able to understand why people sometimes We're not able to really get promoted because they came with, of course, the stigma that, oh, these Africans don't wanna work. The way that they understand things is different from us, but then when they share the stories, when people understood each other, they start working much better together. But it was very successful, and then other companies start to calling us to create the same environments.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:09:50]:

Exactly. I was gonna say that the intelligence component of who you are and how you operate came in handy here, and you were able to bridge all the gaps that were happening culturally between different people in different continents, and thankfully, you are able to dispel any of the stereotypes or any of the things that they misunderstood, and and you're able to actually create better relationships between those parties.


Bisila Bokoko [00:10:55]:

Because an stereotype is just a belief. Mhmm. And a belief could be changed. Values, not. It's not so easy, but the belief, yes. Yes. And when you challenge the belief, It's possible to really have a different look into the person and empathy. Empathy is not about to try to wear your shoes.


Bisila Bokoko [00:11:17]:

It's to see how it feels when I wear them. These shoes are big for me. They get small for me. How do I feel? And that is incredible when you do business with other people.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:11:30]:

Tell me about any stories that you learned as a kid, like, did your family have an impact on the the storytelling that you received as a child, and what did you learn from that?


Bisila Bokoko [00:11:40]:

I think my grandmother particularly was a big storyteller. Africans are storytellers because, I mean, now they have iPhones and they have TVs, but for many, many years, the way to really go through history and understanding your traditions were through stories.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:11:59]:



Bisila Bokoko [00:11:59]:

And still, I mean, I go to Kenya all the time. And every night when I'm with the Maasai, so I'm in the fire, and we tell stories. I mean, we have dinner, and at 9 o'clock, we're 6 next to the fire. Until 11, 12 at night, we tell stories. And my grandmother used to do that. I mean, she would always call me up when because I was in the school that week, and they would say, are you coming this weekend? Let's take out these stories, you know. And she said, because just take out these stories from me and I give it to you. I was embarrassed to be African and to be black because I was the only black kid in the school, and I said, I wanna be like everybody else.


Bisila Bokoko [00:12:37]:

I don't wanna be the only one. My grandmother, particularly her, she was so proud of being African. She loved her roots. She embraced who she was. And that pride, she really was able to transfer to me through her stories. Actually, as an entrepreneur, her stories were extremely essential. Mhmm. Because I remember one time, my uncle was married with a Spanish lady, and she came home and she said that she had a depression.


Bisila Bokoko [00:13:09]:

And my grandmother did not know what that word means because when she left, she told me, what is a depression? She said, she takes medication. What is that? I never heard that. And then I was 12 or 13, and I said, I'm not really sure, but I think that you cry a lot and you're very sad all day. So My grandmother said, I really don't understand these people because I lost 7 children. I buried 7 children. And if I can eat, if I can dance, and I can laugh, everything is fine. So anytime that I'm really hitting a rock, I mean, I was bankrupt with one of my companies. The other one I have to change directions because it was not my passion and I start losing clients and everything.


Bisila Bokoko [00:13:54]:

I always said that to myself. If I can eat, If I can laugh and I can dance, everything is okay.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:14:01]:

But I'm astonished that she went through all that, and yet she still said, I don't know what depression is. That shows a lot of strength, and it shows this resilience to just keep going no matter what has just happened. You know? Find a way to overcome that.


Bisila Bokoko [00:14:15]:

Probably if I did not see it when I was a kid, I would not understand what is that. She never give up. She never studied. She went to school only till she was 9 years old. She married when she was 19. Yeah. But What she did was to grow an amazing family. And the 7 kids that she had, all of them, they're doing well.


Bisila Bokoko [00:14:37]:

Her grandchildren, all of them. She had 22 grandchildren. None of them were in trouble. All of us we worked, and we were healthy. Mhmm. What better company is that? She did a huge corporation because she created these people. Yes. And for me, this was my wake up call.


Bisila Bokoko [00:14:56]:

Like, you know, she never gave up. She always try to get the family together. And when you are an entrepreneur, that's exactly what you do. You keep your team together, you just are resilient, the market change, things happen, surprises, You have to change directions, but the thing is that giving up is not an option.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:15:17]:

It's such an incredible parallel from, like, family building to then corporate building, and it shows that you are able to absolutely understand that to your core. That's who you are right now, and that's what you're doing, and you're surrounding yourself by these opportunities to show people this particular mindset. Tell me more about your experience with the United Nations.


Bisila Bokoko [00:15:40]:

Well, this was an amazing experience because I started to cooperate with them since the year 2010, and they invited me to be part of this group to really promote entrepreneurship in emerging countries in women. Mhmm. And for me, it has been a fascinating journey because when women see other women succeeding, we have references. We have people who we can look up to. And if you see a woman in Honduras that creates a bakery that becomes a corporation and is everywhere. I mean, is is the woman who went to school with you, he has no shoes and everything, and one day you see her See, you're gonna feel that you can.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:16:22]:

Yes. Yes.


Bisila Bokoko [00:16:23]:

So, I mean, I want to just think about a woman in Zimbabwe that she has 10 kids, And she started her company in the kitchen of her house, and she realized that it was not security in Zimbabwe, companies of security. And she just joined the program to be because we give them the microcredit, but with the condition that they will be learning, That they will be actually getting the education that they need. So this way, they really feel confident that whatever happens, they have knowledge. And, you know, education is the biggest key of success that you can have. It maybe doesn't give it to you immediately, but it give you options. And this woman had an option, and the option was, okay, let me explore security. So she started studying because she realized that she has the tools to do it. And now she got a company called Securico, and it's one of the wealthiest women in Africa, but I know where she started.


Bisila Bokoko [00:17:21]:

And the day that I saw her story in Forbes, because I have a personal relationship with her. I say, wow. Look at you. I know her for all these years. Mhmm. And I know who she was before and how she inspired a whole generation of women in Zimbabwe. And when they get me the award of citizen of the world by the committee of the United Nations. I mean, I never really felt comfortable because the imposter syndrome was always in between.


Bisila Bokoko [00:17:50]:

But this particular one, when I've rate why they were giving it to me, I embrace it and I celebrate it because this is how I really feel. And everyone could be a citizen of the world. You are a citizen of the world. Yes. And when we think global, this give us the opportunity to be tolerant with people, to be flexible, to adapt to situations. What could be better for an entrepreneur than to think global?


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:18:18]:

To me, you're in touch with an entire layer of women across the planet who have incredible stories, and you're also the proponent of somebody who wants to keep uplifting everybody. Like, we we should be supporting each other, not tearing each other down. And it's not about competing with one another. It's about collaborating. Collaborating and celebrating and dancing. I love the dance.


Bisila Bokoko [00:18:40]:

I love the the dancing. It's always involved in everybody in Geneva. Anytime I get the Secretary General, I make him dance too. Because I said, if I'm here, you're dancing. I mean, what is this to be serious to do a job? Let's try to really have fun when we were doing. It's so remarkable, the work that sometimes we do, that we don't celebrate it. Yeah. I mean, you're a CEO, you are in banking, and you're doing something.


Bisila Bokoko [00:19:06]:

Celebrate yourself. You know, this is my invitation, and you said something so amazing, Katherin, because it's true that sometimes women, we see each other like threats. And this is also because in our subconscious mind, we're still thinking like one century ago when women only possibility to move In society or economically works through men and through marriage. Mhmm. But right now, we really need each other. So I encourage every woman to give the hand to another and put her the ladder for her to go up with you. We don't want to be alone up there. And the more people we are up there, the better.


Bisila Bokoko [00:19:48]:

So don't be afraid that someone is gonna take your place because that's an illusion of the mind. No one ever can take your place. That's what the power of women together could do. All of us, we discover different things because you see, women, we don't honestly see ourselves as winners. If a woman is gonna go into politics, it's because someone tell her you would be so great doing this. And then it's when you start thinking.


Bisila Bokoko [00:20:17]:

But it's very difficult that a woman get up in the morning and say, you know what? I'm gonna be president. It's because someone tells you, you know, you are so good. You speak well. You could be a politician, you could be that.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:20:27]:

And it plants the seed. Right?


Bisila Bokoko [00:20:28]:

Yeah. It plants the seed, and mostly it's your friends who tells you, oh, you are so eloquent, why you don't do this, or you are such a good writer. You need that support system because there is a lot of women alone with huge amount of talents that no one has tell them yet what they're capable to do.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:20:46]:

Let me ask you quickly, though, because I know that in your in your bio, I saw something, and I wanted to ask you quickly, tell me a little bit more about that first trip to Africa and how that changed you.


Bisila Bokoko [00:20:56]:

Wow. Yes. This was my gift for my 35th birthday. Because I was a decaf African. I mean, I was born in Europe. I live in the United States and never put a foot in the continent. And, when I just put a foot in the continent, it just blew up my mind. It was the first time that I'm in environment that I look like everybody else.


Bisila Bokoko [00:21:19]:

So just going into the airport. And then things that for us is normal, like having running water in the tap is not there. And then I remember when some kids told me that, Oh, what is that? It's it's a book. Some kids, they never touch a book with their hands in the rural Africa.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:21:38]:

Oh, wow. Okay.


Bisila Bokoko [00:21:39]:

And that blow up my mind. Mhmm. And then I realized that books heal me. I was, of course, alone when I was a kid. My parents work a lot. In this case, books were my psychologist, my nannies, everything. And I realized, wow, these kids is me. The only difference is that I was born in a country that education is available for everyone.


Bisila Bokoko [00:22:07]:

You cannot decide where you're born, but you can decide how you live. Mhmm. That's the decision that you could make. I mean, of course, many things happen. Many mystical things happen because they make me the queen of Kokofu, which is a little town close to Kumasi, and I met the the chief, and he said, oh, you're gonna be the queen of Kokofu. And I said, yes. I wanna be a queen. And my husband said, listen.


Bisila Bokoko [00:22:34]:

You don't know why they're gonna ask you for this? And I said, Hey. Did you listen to them? They said, queen, I want my crown. And then when, of course, the level of vanity start going down, I said, okay. But now what can I do for you? And then he said, that's up to you. I mean, think about a project that you would like to do with us. Mhmm. And then I I mean, it took me 3 days to realize. I said, if I knew Africa about the books, they could know the world about the goats the same way I learned because I knew who they were.


Bisila Bokoko [00:23:05]:

I knew that they were Ashantis from that tribe. I read all these books because my parents, when I was 8 years old, they only give me books about Africa. And every week, I have to read several books, and I have to understand the colonization process, how slavery marks a scar in people. The same scar is not the same, for example, when you've been part of the colonization, understand what it is to be black in America. It's not the same to be a black in Europe or to be a black in Latin America and the Caribbean. So understanding of these realities, they were preparing me to understand the world through books. So when I went to Africa, I was able to understand what was happening. And that's the reason why I said, yeah, they could definitely understand the world also through that.


Bisila Bokoko [00:23:53]:

So every kid has to have access to a book.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:23:55]:

Yes. Yes.


Bisila Bokoko [00:23:56]:

And, of course, my motto is, with a book, you are never alone. In this way, no kid could feel alone.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:24:04]:

And so what happened?


Bisila Bokoko [00:24:05]:

We have 4 libraries in Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. And then we collaborate with different countries, with Cameroon with Nigeria, with Rwanda. And the next thing is something very new, starting 2023. When your parents read, you have a tendency to read. So if we don't really make this part of the culture of a family, it was very difficult. And then we decided to create digital literacy. So last year, we partnered with different technological hubs in Africa, and we started working with that, and we have a project also to expose children in very early age to the digital world. In order to avoid this bridge that exists in education between 1 continent and others.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:24:52]:

What you're doing right now is incredibly expansive. You're affecting the lives of an entire generation, and allowing them to have access to information, knowledge, culture, and and everything in between there. You know, you're saying education is that pillar of society. It it's important to have that. It's important to offer it. It's something that every nation should have. It's part of your citizens' right to to have that education.


Bisila Bokoko [00:25:20]:

Absolutely. Yeah.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:25:26]:

Tell me quickly, what kind of advice would you offer entrepreneurs who are going through hardship, going through maybe starting points in their in their journey.


Bisila Bokoko [00:25:36]:

Like I said before, entrepreneurship is a self knowledge, and one of the mistakes that I did when I create my company is not having enough knowledge. I did not know anything about wines. And sometimes, we really have a misperception, and I think we have to be very honest with ourselves. And whatever you don't know, get the help from other person who knows. Because when we were about to win ourselves, we realized that we needed people who really have been knowing the business better than us. And when we join ventures with that is when we grow. Mhmm. Another mistake that we make is that we believe that we tell ourself a story, and because my brother and I were thinking, oh, we're both black, young, and we create a wine in Spain.


Bisila Bokoko [00:26:20]:

It's gonna be super successful because it's different and disruptive. Don't believe that it's disruptive, and it's gonna just go. You know? That you're gonna be like Apple just because they disrupt the world. Mhmm. And we were thinking that, and it didn't work that way. It was very hard. And of course, I sent wine to Ghana, to Nigeria, to everywhere, And they only drink it, but they never buy it. Yes.


Bisila Bokoko [00:26:46]:

So you have to really make a finance plan. And that finance plan is is alive. Sometimes you make a business plan for 3 years, and flexibility, and also understand that uncertainty It's the norm, and that you have to be in a vision. Also, if you have no passion for something, sometimes you have to let it go. You have to sell your business or something because it requires a lot of passion. Because for you never give up is because you are completely in love and committed to your business.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:27:16]:



Bisila Bokoko [00:27:17]:

Another thing is, if you fail, don't allow that the toxic emotions of shame and guilt take over. Because we're very scared to tell people I make a mistake. I mean, I make mistakes. I was amazed with my finances. I didn't know what to do, you think that you're an entrepreneur and you don't know what is to be an entrepreneur, and you play the orchestra and you could not play every instrument. So just get together with people who know more. And one of my biggest lessons also is understand that people don't work for me. They work with me.


Bisila Bokoko [00:27:54]:

And that, I started to not see people like my employees. They're not employees. I don't have any more employees. I have collaborators.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:28:02]:



Bisila Bokoko [00:28:03]:

And when you have to let go of people, the fact that it broke my heart when I had to do that, I realized that I wanna work with people, And I create other entrepreneurs. So my business model is no one works for me, they work with me. So I create other entrepreneurs. In this way, through teach them to be entrepreneurs, they create a company, and I became a client of them. So they don't feel that when I ask them for something that they work for me. They know that I am a person that serve also the purpose, and they grow with me. And this business model for me has been essential for my growth in the last years. And this for me has been one of the biggest lessons to just manage my business.


Bisila Bokoko [00:28:48]:

I just wanna say one thing. Like an entrepreneur, I have a mantra. Because, of course, like an entrepreneur, you have good days and you have bad days. Mhmm. And I always get up in the morning and even without leaving the bed and say today's gonna be a great day. Today's gonna be a great day. Because when you just declare that, no matter what is happening, you are declaring into the universe that it's gonna be a great day, and great things happen. Maybe that client that they didn't pay you, they pay, and it's gonna be a great day.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:29:18]:

Thank you so much to Bisila Bokoko. You can learn more about Bisila and BBES through the links in the episode description. If you like the show, please rate, review, and subscribe to And So, She Left wherever you listen. Your feedback helps us to better serve our current listeners and reach new ones. We also have a new website. Head over to andsoshe for full episodes, transcripts, an application form to be on the show, a list of upcoming guests, and more. And So, She Left is made by Cansulta and Ethan Lee. Cansulta connects entrepreneurs and leaders with a global roster of over 150 pre vetted consultants and experts like Ethan and I who can help organizations in any business area from HR to finance to sales and marketing and even brand storytelling.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:30:08]:

We'll be back next Wednesday with a new episode. Our music is by Correspondence and Chris Zabriskie, edited for your enjoyment. You can find a list of all the songs you heard here in the episode notes. I'm Katherin Vasilopoulos, and thanks for listening.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page