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 to help battle functional illiteracy among approximately 200 million African children and around the world.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I grew up in Rome and come from a family of adventurers. I traveled to Africa for the first time at the age of seven and it changed my life. After seeing rural Africa, and how different my life in Italy was to kids there, I came home with a different mindset and an urge to do something to have a positive impact. I was a very entrepreneurial child and started creating and selling things from the age of seven and donating profits to causes in Africa.
Even while studying at drama school at the age of 16, I had already launched my first education business and focused on raising money for projects in Africa. My entrepreneurial flair was further nurtured by a series of mentors who encouraged me to move to San Francisco to understand how I could use technology to have a bigger impact. I worked in an accelerator for startups and met as many social entrepreneurs as I possibly could. After a few months, the CEO I worked for suggested I apply to Singularity University: a place for entrepreneurs who wanted to change the world.
What inspired you to start your business?
Singularity University really changed my mindset and helped me to think big. The first thing you bump into each morning before class, is a big pink sign that says “How will you positively impact the lives of a billion people?” You then learn how exponential technologies can be used to solve some of the biggest challenges in the world. Two months after Singularity, I was equipped with this “think ridiculously big” mindset, and a heavy dose of Mom-encouragement, so I decided I was going to dedicate my life to solving one of the biggest problems in global education: child illiteracy.
So I took my backpack and traveled and lived across Africa to understand why over 250 million children were illiterate with 67% of them dropping out of primary school.
Where is your business based?
We are a UK company with our headquarters based between London and Nairobi, with teams in the US and Italy.
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
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 discovered how the exponential rise of mobile technology was democratizing access to learning even among low-income families and yet how little content there was that was locally relevant for the African population. 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.
Soon after I created Super Sema, an animated character and an African superhero to become the inspirational figure that the whole youth black population, over a billion people, could 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.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenges are always the ones you are currently overcoming. Everyday founders have to do at least one thing they’ve never done before. You are constantly having to learn new things very fast, I joke that I could be called “Chief Learning Officer” because most of the time that is my role! But I do have a method. I read as much as I can on the specific topic I need to master, I find 3-5 experts who I can talk to (these have typically then become my mentors), and then I see an example of what the top-of-the-top looks like and I just go for it!
Most of the times, I get it wrong in the beginning, but we have a great culture of testing and iterating fast enough so we can learn from mistakes and failures until we then succeed. Before you know it, you’re an expert on the subject and find yourself advising others on it!
How do you stay focused?
It’s easy for me to stay focused because I do something I truly love. I’m so lucky to be actively using all my passions into Kukua: building a business, having an impact, entertainment and creativity, and Africa and emerging markets. But it’s also okay when I’m not focused… I run a creative business and sometimes the best ideas or sparks of inspiration don’t come from being focused!
For example, we have our general team meetings once a week and while we always have an agenda for them, it’s okay if people suddenly go off track and the conversations 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.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
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 got over 3 billion views.
At Kukua, we’re constantly thinking of how to capture those eyeballs and convert them into curiosity for learning. Essentially screen time becomes a way to unlock potential and imagination in the real world.
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’re 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 “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.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
First, believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you. Second, never stop learning and evolving your business.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
App - Revolut! Allows me to be a true millennial, I can do anything in one click.
Books, I love reading biographies and my favorite one is Walt Disney’s. My team recently gave me as a present “Becoming Michelle Obama” and it was truly inspiring. Her story gives courage to so many women around the world, to unapologetically find their voice and own it!
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
Without a doubt, it’s Slack. It allows our globally distributed team to be connected and productive from all parts of the world whether we’re working from the office or home.
Who is your business role model? Why?
Oprah Winfrey, of course. I admired for her talent, charisma, and values. She is 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.
What is your beauty routine? What are some of your favorite products?
Exercising daily whether it’s Pilates or playing tennis and eating healthy, religiously Italian food!
How do you balance work and life?
This year, during my fundraising period I forgot to balance work and life, because I never see my work as “work”, it’s just something I love and could keep on going for hours and hours without noticing the time. But I did see the consequences of not “unplugging” and understood how much your personal well-being is so important. I now schedule my gym classes, for example, before the start of the week and try to stick to them religiously! I’m also a family-first person and though I don’t have kids yet I am very close to my parents and brothers, so I try to spend as much time as possible with them!
What’s your favorite way to decompress?
I ride horses with my mom!
What do you have planned for the next six months?
We’re launching our YouTube channel with an inspiring Afro-kid pop music video! Wait for it!
How can our readers connect with you?