Bisila Bokoko, Executive Director for the US Spain Chamber of Commerce (USCC), is our Ladybrille Magazine Woman of the Month for February, 2010. Bokoko is quite a unique and dynamic woman with a wealth of experience in international trade and trade relations. In our interview, the very Ladybrille Woman discusses her African background, Spanish-African relationship in Spain (you’d be surprised!) and how Ladybrille investors can take advantage of USCC’s services. It’s a must read so read on!
Bisila’s Personal & Professional Background
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Bisila you have a very interesting background. Could you share it with us?
BB: I am an African-Spaniard. I was born in Spain and both my parents are from Equatorial Guinea.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You reached out to Ladybrille Magazine and me just before NY Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2010 season and we got into a rather interesting discussion about Spanish-African/Black relationship. Share with our audience what you shared with me?
BB: Well, what I shared with you was the Spanish situation with Africans. It is still very rare in Spain to see black people in department stores, banks, airports, supermarkets etc. . . And even more so, it is difficult to see Black people in top level executive or government positions. Also, a large number of Africans living in Spain are involved in activities that damage the image of all of Africans descendants. Maybe it is a consequence of the lack of opportunities in Spain for them that create these situations . . .
LADYBRILLEmag.com: So, it is pretty significant that as an African woman, you are the head of USCC. Do you feel any major responsibility from a cultural context in your position at USCC?
BB: Yes, very much so. I feel that I have to find the right balance between my Spanish culture and my African culture because I have both. Also, I feel I need to prove that Africans are equally capable of handling top executive positions and still remain faithful to our culture and values.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Intriguing. Tell us your career path before becoming Executive Director for USCC?
BB: I studied law and economics in Spain and the UK. I later did my Masters in International Relations in New York. My law practice was very short because I decided to focus on international business relations. I applied for an internship at the Trade Office of the Regional Government of Valencia, I was very lucky to get the job and I was sent to the New York Office to work. A few months later, they hired me. I worked for Valencia Region for six (6) years, then I got an offer to work at the Spain-US Chamber of Commerce.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How long is your tenure as Executive Director?
BB: (Four) 4 years and (two) 2 months.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Bisila for the people who might read this and not know the true function of a Chamber of Commerce, please explain what an organization like USCC does?
BB: The US Spain Chamber of Commerce is a bi-lateral private US non-profit organization with a $1.7 Million budget and a staff of fourteen. (Our organization) is dedicated to fostering trade, investment and institutional relations between Spain and the United States. We help Spanish corporations do business in the US. We go from helping with access to procurement processes, coordinate joint ventures, help retail businesses settle down, consulting, promoting, organizing events, processing J1 Visas etc. . . We work in all sectors: industrial, technological, renewable energies, infrastructure, food, wines, fashion, culture and many more. Also, we work the other way around helping American corporations to do business in Spain.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Now that we understand what USCC does, what does it mean specifically to be Executive Director of USCC? What are your day to day duties?
BB: I provide day-to-day operational leadership including supervision of a very talented staff. I secure financial resources through membership fees and fundraising events; and develop long-term and short-term sustainability strategies with the Board of Directors. Also, I travel internationally to visit with foreign government and business leaders to discuss ways to enhance trade and promote Spain exports.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How many departments are there at USCC and how many do you supervise?
BB: There are 5 departments: Events, Trade, Professional Exchange Program, Administration, and Protocol & Communications. I supervise all of them.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: That is a big deal. Share with us some of your accomplishments in your capacity as Executive Director with USCC?
BB: I played a key role in the accelerated growth of The Spain-US Chamber of Commerce, in less than three years significantly increasing revenues and growing the operating budget from $300,000 to $1.7 Million. Our growth exploded the demand for resources which helped increase the board from 21 to 40 and our staff from 3 to 14. Also, with the help of a great team and the Board of Directors, I was able to help develop and cultivate relationships with foreign heads of states, ministries of commerce/economy and international business leaders
I have also escorted US Government officials on trips to Europe to meet with the top level government officials and key business leaders to discuss expanded trade opportunities and furthering business ties. Also, under my leadership, we have brokered strategic trade partnerships between, Latin America, West Africa and the United States business development organizations. I also played a key role in securing Valencia as the host city for the 32nd Annual America’s Cup, secured a partnership with PBS to promote two televised shows featuring Chef Mario Batali and actress Gwyneth Paltrow “On the Road Again” and “Made in Spain” featuring Chef Jose Andres to bring attention to Spain’s food, wine, and tourist industries.
Bisila on Marketing & Public Relations
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Highly impressive work and accomplishments Bisila. Your mention of PBS makes me think of how you have been excellent at reaching out to the media. How important is it to develop a relationship with media in your role as Executive Director?
BB: I believe that the reason why I (have) developed (our) relationship with the media was mainly because I offered my help first, providing information, contacts and resources to them that I thought might be useful. (As a result) it became a win-win situation for both parties. I have always thought that you have to treat media well and they will treat you well, too. We included them in our events as guests and I developed a friendship with them. I believe Journalism is a very (demanding) and difficult career and I have a lot of respect and admiration for the media.
Bisila Speaks on Trade Investments via USCC in Spain.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let’s talk trade and trade investments in Spain, especially now. Bisila, Spain, like many countries worldwide, has been hit hard with the recession. How does Spain’s current economic climate affect the USCC, its resources and activities?
BB: Well, the situation is really difficult in Spain right now, and we were hit badly. The biggest concern is the unemployment rates that are incredibly high. For the Chamber, with the crisis we have seen some disadvantages but we have also seen some opportunities. Due to the crisis more companies are looking towards doing business in (Spain’s) market and that means more work for us. But, the downside of the economic atmosphere is the challenges we are facing getting sponsorships and fundraising.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I hear you on fundraising and sponsorships. Can be quite tough but indeed there are still many business opportunities. So, let’s transition to investments and doing business with Spain. In general, what are some of the key things our Ladybrille investors need to know if they want to do business with Spain? What questions should they be asking and answering?
BB: The main thing is to know about the culture of business in Spain which is quite different from America’s. It is important to know that to do business in Spain with (anyone), there (must) be a chemistry. The combination of business and pleasure is an absolute must in Spain. Of course, it is also important to look at the labor and taxation legal system which might bring some surprises. . .
LADYBRILLEmag.com: We will get into the legal system and taxation soon but let me throw some hypothetical(s) your way so our Ladybrille investors can see the pragmatic application of what we speak of. I am a small business looking to export goods to Spain. Assume the leg work has been done and I am now ready to ship my goods to Spain to be sold at retail outlets I have relationships with. How would the USCC help me?
BB: The Chamber could help if (your) goods are stocked in customs through our relationships in Spain. We could advise you on which transportation companies could be more efficient and reliable. Also, in case you need to increase your contacts to sell more or sell to different regions, we can help open the doors for you. If it is a new product, we can help promote your product for you.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: It sounds very good and useful. Let me give you another hypothetical. I am a medium size business selling skincare products. I have never done business with Spain but based on my research, I believe Spain would be very good for my business. How would the USCC help me?
BB: We will provide you with a list of contacts that can distribute the product and/or sell it. We can prepare the meetings for you and help you with media relations in Spain.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Terrific. I believe you have helped crystallize some of the services USCC offers in our minds. Let me take you a different direction. Spain is well known for its renewable energies. Explain more about Spain’s notoriety with renewable energies to our readers?
BB: Well Spain is a worldwide leader in renewable energies and we have a strong presence in the US through companies like Gamesa in Pennsylvania, with more than 800 people producing wind power. Iberdrola ( is another company) we supported recently and they bought energy in the East Coast. As a result, (they) are now becoming the biggest provider of renewable energies in the East Coast. Spain also has a leadership position in solar energy and many companies are investing and building solar parks in the US.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let’s go back to the legal questiosn I was going to ask you. First, is Spain a business friendly country?
BB: Spain is a very friendly country and I believe the most fun to do business with. As I mentioned before, the combination of business and pleasure is a rule.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What makes it a business friendly country?
BB: What makes it (business) friendly is that for sure you will find it is easy for people to listen and meet you if you have the right contacts to introduce you. Once the door is open, all goes very smoothly. One thing you need to be aware, however, is that because (people) are so friendly, sometimes they are not direct enough and you might have a sense of waste of time if after all of the (chatting) there is no business. . .
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Okay so when you say that, give us some basic etiquette rules of doing business with Spain? What are some of the cultural norms we should be aware of?
BB: Spaniards do not go straight to business in their transactions and negotiations. They need to know and like the person with who they do business with. This is the reason why in Spain we do four (4) hours lunch and until the coffee is served no business talk has taken place. Also, it is important to take into account that Spaniards are not too good with follow up. They might disappear for a month on vacation and there is no way to reach them.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs) Big contrast with how we do business in the States and to some extent Africa.
BB: In Spain, we eat very late. Dinner is around 10 pm if not later, and lunch and dinners are in the company of wines.
BB: If you follow the culture and you enjoy it, then they will trust you and they will be very happy to do business and offer their friendship. You need to understand that they take pride in their food and wines, entertainment etc. and they love to share! Spanish people are very generous and gracious host.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Very wonderful information Bisila and really good to know.
Bisila Speaks on Spain-Africa Investments
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You mentioned Spain’s interest in investing in fashion. The Spanish retailer, Mango, has now opened shop in Nigeria, West Africa. There is a keen or seemingly reawakened interest on the part of Spain to really get into West Africa. Share with us some of the things Spain has in place for business with Africa and African investors?
BB: Yes, Spain has an interest in Africa and it is not a sudden interest. Spain has been doing business in Africa for a long time. Do not forget that Canary Island is politically Spanish but geographically is in Africa and has been a bridge between Spain and African for business relations. Lately, the amount of interest has increased because Africa is also very open to foreign trade. I know a lot of Spanish companies that are very successful working in Africa and they have amazing projects going on.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let’s touch briefly on taxes. Spain, like other countries, taxes foreign investors. Give us an idea of the typical kinds of taxes Ladybrille foreign investors should expect to pay?
BB: Yes, there is some taxation depending mainly on the product, but Spain is not too protectionist in this sense. It all depends on if the product is also manufactured in Spain. Also, there are a lot of incentives for foreign investment. Spain is developing programs in that sense from the central government perspective and also from the regional.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let’s come back to USCC here in the USA. What are some of the key trade events that your organization puts on to promote trade with Spain?
BB: We do seminars, direct trade missions, reverse trade missions, think tags, we publish information etc.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Who are the members that make up the USCC?
BB: Spanish companies doing business in the US and US companies with interest in doing business in Spain.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Anything else you want to share with us?
BB: I would like to encourage African businesses to expand their wings internationally. I believe that African business have a lot to offer. I am very proud of the level of professionalism that African people in business are showing. I believe the key is help and promote each other. Spain is a very good market for Africans and Africa is a good market for Spain. There are some African organizations and I collaborate with them, to support the triangle of US-Spain-Africa, Spain being the bridge and the facilitator for US to do business in Africa.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I am sure our Ladybrille investors have heard you. Thank you so much Bisila for the interview. This was very informative.
BB: Thanks to Ladybrille Magazine. The reason why I reached out to you is because I was so proud of the work you are doing. It is an honor and a privilege for me to be here and I will be very happy to provide any help or support you might need. Thanks again!
~Interview Uduak Oduok