Key learnings for export managers form the former Executive Director of the Spain-US Chamber of Commerce

Bisila Bokoko, born in Valencia in 1974, defines herself as "a cultural hybrid. Born in Spain to African parents, I am now a U.S. citizen and have lived in New York City for the past fifteen years. She is a reference, both as a person, for her numerous charitable projects, as well as for her great professional career.

She began her professional career at the law firm of Carbo & Martinez in Valencia as a legal assistant. After 2 years she began her career in the field of international relations. She was in charge of the Export Institute of Valencia (now IVACE) for 6 years. In 2005 she became Executive Director of the Spain-US Chamber of Commerce until 2012. Given her extensive professional background, Bisila has a unique vision of the commercial relations between Spanish and U.S. companies. Therefore, we wanted to ask her a series of questions that Spanish exporting SMEs will find very interesting.

"The American market is divided into 5 submarkets geographically and you have to take into account the different cultures in order to meet the needs of the different groups that are multicultural." - Bisila Bokoko

How was your experience as director of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in the United States, breaking the so-called “glass ceiling”?

My experience as Executive Director of the Spanish Chamber in the United States was one of the most enriching experiences of my life and a great learning experience. I was fortunate to be surrounded by magnificent leadership in the person of the Chairman upon my arrival, Mario Diaz-Cruz III, and a Board of Directors who believed in me. I was given the opportunity to work with a lot of flexibility and was given room to grow. I also encountered some challenges and became a hurdler.

Given your trajectory in IVACE and the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in the United States, how has the process of expansion of companies to this country changed? What were the actions you carried out during your time as Executive Director that marked a before and after?

The Spanish business environment when I started was very different from what it is today, and I witnessed its rapid evolution. In 2000, when I arrived in the United States, I found companies that had many fears and complexes about the country, and little by little they gained confidence and became better prepared to establish themselves in the market. Already in 2006, I noticed very visible changes. In addition, a very significant step was taken since companies not only wanted to sell in the USA but also to invest and set up companies in the country.

I lived through a very sweet period because the big Spanish companies in infrastructure, finance, and energy, began to make large investments, and I was part of these processes, it was very rewarding for everyone. On the other hand, we set our sights on less traditional sectors, since in those years fashion, art, culture, and technology were not promoted too much, and we worked to carry this out, as well as to support entrepreneurs. There was a lot of support for the traditional businessman and little for the entrepreneur or start-up, and we created the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, for example.

World Investment Forum, 2018

What do you think are the key factors in expanding into the U.S.? What would you say to SMEs that are considering opening up to the U.S. market?

The fundamental factor when expanding is to take into account the legal framework of the United States, which is complex, and to have prior advice. The assistance of an accountant is also an important factor to have a clear accounting.

Understand that the American market is geographically divided into 5 submarkets and take into account the different cultures in order to meet the needs of the different groups that are multicultural. Relying on Chambers of Commerce, Trade Offices, or private consultants is important to have access to importers, distributors or potential partners is very convenient and facilitates the work.

There are opportunities in a market like the United States and a 3-5 year strategic plan is needed. It is not a market in which the “buck theory” exists. Going to this market involves an effort of money and time, so you have to commit and persist, with time huge opportunities open up, and it is a very loyal market.  

Be very clear that no matter how wonderful your product is, if there is no good marketing to sell it, it remains just that, a good product. Having clear marketing tools is fundamental. Now it is also much easier than a few years ago, since digitalization has opened many doors!

You have worked with large firms as a consultant, do you think that internationalization is possible for Spanish SMEs?

Absolutely, time and time again I have witnessed success stories in the American market during the 22 years I have been here. In addition, the United States also has a business network based on SMEs, so they are very open to collaborate with SMEs in other countries, and SMEs have a lot to offer in terms of the flexibility they can have when it comes to adapting the product to the demands of the particular customer. And loyalty relationships can be created. I certainly encourage SMEs to take the courage to enter the market with the corresponding support from institutions that can help them take the first steps.

What is the formula for success in the internationalization process?

Honestly, there is no infallible formula, what I can say is that companies that have shown great determination and total commitment to the internationalization process succeed. They have made a plan of action and have been adapting the plan to the changing circumstances and the uncertainty of the process and the economy, having clear objectives. What matters is the path and not the destination. If you are only looking for immediate results and believe that the American market will solve the problems of your local market, it will not work. You have to come to this market to stay. Take small steps so that eventually the doors will open.

A positive attitude, listening and an investment of money and time is a winning formula.

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