Lucrezia Bisignani of Kukua: “Women leaders should use the single best trait they have more than anyone else in the world — EMPATHY”

Show up every day being your true self with no fear of being different from male leaders. Use the single best trait women have more than anyone else in the world — EMPATHY. I had the pleasure to interview Lucrezia Bisignani. Lucrezia “Lulu” Bisignani is a social entrepreneur and the Founder and CEO of London-based Kukua, an […]

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Show up every day being your true self with no fear of being different from male leaders. Use the single best trait women have more than anyone else in the world — EMPATHY.

I had the pleasure to interview Lucrezia Bisignani. Lucrezia “Lulu” Bisignani is a social entrepreneur and the Founder and CEO of London-based Kukua, an entertainment education company founded in 2014 to produce a Pan-African children’s franchise around Super Sema, Africa’s first animated child heroine who is brought to life through game-based learning Apps, an upcoming animated TV series and toys. Named in 2019 as one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, Bisignani began developing mobile gaming to teach African children basic reading, writing and mathematics in an effort to help battle functional illiteracy among approximately 200 million African children and around the world. Bisignani is a 2014 graduate of Mountainview, California-based Singularity University, the NASA based exponential technology program for entrepreneurs who are selected to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. She previously trained as an actress at the Oxford School of Drama, one of the most prestigious theater schools in England. Bisignani was nominated among the 100 most influential Italian women in technology by StartupItalia, was selected to speak at WIRED 2016 as one of the women who are changing the world. In 2017, Bisignani was selected as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Solve fellow, chosen to work on Refugee education for the MIT initiative that advances lasting solutions from tech entrepreneurs to address the world’s most pressing problems.

Thank you so much for joining us Lucrezia!Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It is incredible for me to look back at the choices I have made growing up and to see how the dots connected perfectly into what is now my ‘career path,’ or rather, my life’s purpose. Kukua, my company is the combination of all my passions and everything I care about. As a young girl I travelled to Africa with my family. My parents wanted me and my brothers and sisters to see and understand how different the world was from where we were growing up in Rome.

By my teenage years I had seen half of the world’s most remote places. Since a very young age, I possessed an innate entrepreneurial flair; I would spend afternoons creating and crafting things that I would then sell at a local beach in Tuscany — mind you I was 8 or 9 years old. I would then donate all the profits to African charities to help the villages I had seen with my own eyes through those family trips. By the age of 17 I was running my own non-profit organization and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the same time, my other big obsession while growing up was theatre. I was picked to be Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in fifth grade and got accepted in one of the most prestigious drama schools in England after high school. The big click however came after my time at Singularity University in Silicon Valley, a place where entrepreneurs are challenged to use exponential technologies to solve some of the biggest problems in the world.

As I said, it is incredible for me to wake up every morning and for my childhood passions to be combined together in my everyday work: impact and Africa, entrepreneurship, entertainment and technology — the essence of what Kukua is today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

At the start of Kukua’s journey in 2014, I carried out six months of on-the-ground research including living across urban slums and rural areas in Gambia, Kenya and South Africa, sitting at the back of hundreds of classrooms, interviewing parents and testing literacy tools with children, and living in the homes of families who were earning less than $2 per day.

Through my research I learned how much children loved to learn through play, how excited they got about mobile games and technology and how engaged they were with any form of storytelling. I learned that many of their parents, some of the most aspirational and entrepreneurial people I have met, owned affordable smartphones and TV’s. But what surprised me the most, was how little content, specifically made for Africa there was — and mind you this was before the success of “Black Panther!” I saw a huge gap in the representation of Africa in the media industry and at the same time an opportunity to create locally relevant and educational content for the whole African population.

That’s how Super Sema, came to life. An animated character and an African superhero Super Sema is the aspirational figure that the whole youth African population, over a billion people, will look up to when envisioning their future. Super Sema combines the worlds of education and entertainment to create magical learning experiences that will empower generations of children in Africa and the world with the skills and confidence to pursue anything they dream of!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Last year, while I was raising our seed round I had a last minute meeting set up during an event with one of the most amazing and well-known angel investors. But of course, I had no time to look her up, and didn’t know that. And because our round was oversubscribed I told her there was no space to invest. Another founder who overheard the conversation literally took me aside and whispered in my ear ‘You don’t understand who you’re talking to, you make space in the round for someone like her.’

The lesson I learned is that sometimes not knowing the fame that goes with the person you’re meeting helps put off all the pressure! I also learned that sometimes it is better for investors to fight their way in the round!!!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Children all over the world are obsessed with great stories and characters. You see it when they’re watching Elsa on YouTube and singing along to “Let it Go” or most recently the big hit “Baby Shark Dance,” a video that has more than 3 billion views.

At Kukua, we are constantly thinking of how to capture those eyeballs and convert them into curiosity for learning. Essentially screen time becomes a way unlock potential, imagination and love for learning.

With a world class team of writers, franchise developers and producers formerly at The Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros., paired with leading educators, we are blurring the worlds of entertainment and education to create a magical and locally relevant learning universe that will educate and inspire children all over the world.

The power of characters in mass media, especially aspirational ones, is incredible, they have the power to fundamentally change how people perceive their own place in the world. A Geena Davis study reported that after the release of movies “The Hunger Games” and “Brave” in 2012, both of which feature women protagonists who use a bow and arrow, girls’ participation in archery competitions doubled.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are now producing the animated television series of Super Sema, think of it as “Black Panther” meets “PJ Masks,” to inspire children to learn about science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Sema is a 10-years-old, confident, resourceful and imaginative, headstrong, technological whiz-kid born with an innate sense of justice. Her super powers are Imagination, confidence, determination and a whole lot of STEM savvy! She lives in Dunia, a bustling African urban village, where DIY and STEAM kid powers meet high tech Afrofuturism. Sema has a secret lab in which she builds all sorts of crazy techy inventions with her brother to save her village from a heartless AI robot and his army of robotic minions.

We are also launching the Super Sema Youtube channel with loads of inspiring content to entertain and empower children in Africa and all over the world. The first piece of content to be released is an inspiring Afro-pop, kid-power music video. Wait for it!

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Show up every day being your true self with no fear of being different from male leaders. Use the single best trait women have more than anyone else in the world — EMPATHY.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I would tell them that with big teams, especially during meetings, it’s okay if things go off agenda. Sometimes the best ideas or sparks of inspiration don’t come from being in highly structured environments. We have our general team meetings once a week and while we always have clear objectives, it is okay if the team suddenly goes off track and the conversation take a different direction. Some people may see this as a waste of time or productivity, I see it as giving space for ideas to spring from places you were not expecting.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am so lucky I have had the most extraordinary mentors since a very young age. I couldn’t point out to one, because at different times of my path I have had mentors who have supported me, introduced me to life changing connections or opportunities and most importantly they really believed in me. This was vital for me and I wouldn’t have done it without them then, and now. It is so important for entrepreneurs to build up that ‘personal advisory board’ that can point you back to your north star when you need it and encourage you to keep going even when things are falling apart. I am eternally grateful to them all, they’ll be reading this interview and know who they are.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Bringing goodness to the world is directly linked to my company’s mission. We are tackling one of the biggest problems in global education, child illiteracy, with the goal of empowering generations of African and global children with the academic skills and confidence to pursue anything they dream of. Every tiny bit of success, whether it is exposure or monetary is used for this goal.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Empower your team to learn fast (there are so many things to learn every day). I always talk about Clara in our team who went from being an intern to our Head of Growth. She mastered topics overnight, spoke to experts, read books, tried, tested, failed a bunch of stuff and turned into an amazing growth hacker.
  2. Think big. And then think bigger. At the start of Kukua we were running for a $10 million competition grant which at the time felt like the biggest thing in the world. We lost it. And that forced me to think bigger, to come up with a billion dollar business model opportunity.
  3. Believe in your team. There is nothing like people feeling trusted. I learned that on myself. At the very start of my business, my mentors believed in me, sometimes they connected me to people who were well beyond my league. I took that opportunity and turned it into something bigger. I now always try to do the same with my team. It is extraordinary to see what people can achieve when you let them know ‘YOU CAN!’
  4. Stay agile. When starting a company, I wish there was just one way to pursue and all you have to do is go for it with all your might. But it is never like that. You are constantly thinking of a million better and faster routes to get where you have to. I have seen this from the start of Kukua, while our grand goal is still the same, the way to get there is made up of constant micro changes and adjustments and sometimes bigger pivots. The role of the founder is to see and evaluate all those routes, and guide your team as they iterate and move the company forward.
  5. Start with the end result and engineer your way backwards. When I started the fundraising for Kukua’s seed round I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like and the investors I wanted to attract. I not only envisioned all the details in my head and wrote them down, I went all the way to emailing a conference coordinator asking him to reserve a slot at the conference for me to announce the funding round in a few months time. Seeing the end vision clearly guides my every day steps and motivates me.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Well Super Sema of course! A movement made up of super kids who no matter how tiny, or where they are in the world, have the voice and the skills to change the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It is from my favorite author and book, “40 Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak:

“Think of me as a duckling raised by hens. I am not a domestic bird destined to spend his life in a chicken coop. The water that scares you rejuvenates me. For unlike you I can swim, and swim I shall. The ocean is my homeland. If you are with me, come to the ocean. If not, stop interfering with me and go back to the chicken coop.” It taught me to embrace my differences and to unapologetically be myself.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Oprah Winfrey of course. Admired for her talent, charisma and values, she’s one of the first African American female role models whose voice has reached the world and whose impact is immeasurable. People look up to her, I look up to her and if she were a young hero, she would be Super Sema. No harm if you wish to tag Michelle Obama too 🙂

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