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Meet Chris Oladapo

A designer putting his passion and purpose to work not only for his current workplace and the next generation of Black designers here in the US but also in his home country of Nigeria.
Chris Oladapo Headshot

Meet Chris Oladapo, a Mobile Product Designer at Dropbox.

Q: Tell me about yourself. 

A: I’m a Nigerian-born designer. I grew up in Lagos which is a major epicenter of Nigeria, and I migrated to the United States at 15 years old. I spent over 10 years trying to figure out where I belong. I attended Savannah College of Art and Design, got a master’s degree, practiced architecture for 10 years, and just recently transitioned into tech. 

Architecture wasn’t really my happy space. I had difficulty being looked at as the owner of my own business once I went out on my own. People wanted to dilute the Black part of me, but if you dilute part of someone, you’re missing everything they can bring to the table. At a certain point I had to ask myself if the people I idolized were in my shoes, would they still be in architecture at this time? 

I loved problem-solving and designing solutions. Tech was the new ecosystem. I built an app to create solutions in the tech space. I burnt out so fast because fundraising sucked the creativity and energy out of me. That’s how I learned start-ups weren’t my desired space, but design was still at my heart. 

People wanted to dilute the Black part of me, but if you dilute part of someone, you’re missing everything they can bring to the table.

Q: It sounds like the design industry was the perfect space for you. Did you face any obstacles in entering the field or once you were in the profession? 

A: Growing up when I moved to the states I lived in Maryland with my aunt and uncle. My uncle was a taxi driver and my aunt worked at a daycare center. When I talked about college, they had no idea how to guide me. I talked to my teachers and guidance counselors about design and was never encouraged. It’s not the fault of those teachers. When I compare my life to a kid who had a great education and knew the right designers or was related to them, they looked better on paper. They’ve been gathering knowledge well before school.

This happened to me in college – everyone in the class knew astronomically more than me. They just had this knowledge, and I later learned it was because they went to architectural high schools, or their parents were architects and they learned it at home. You cannot take two people’s experiences and compare them on a base level of resumes.

I thought getting my master’s degree would help me skip the corporate ladder, but I’ve always had to deal with it. There’s been a lot of barriers and obstacles, but I fought my way through them. There’s a certain level of reeducation that needs to happen across the board that would help equalize design knowledge and education. Architecture isn’t putting a building together; it’s gathering information and synthesizing it to solve a problem.

The biggest con is learning what’s behind the curtain. Realizing I was often the only one who looked like me in the room was daunting. I had to work hard to prove that I could even do the job, but then I wouldn’t get the opportunity to prove I can compete with my peers or surpass them in skill and talent.

Throughout the design journey, I was made to feel like I can’t do the job. Now that I’m here I’m like, “Wait, you said I couldn’t do this job?” I’m doing it.

Q: How was the transition from architecture to tech? What was your experience like moving into corporate America?

A: My first company was seemingly a dream job. I learned getting something you truly want is hard but it’s doable. Keeping it is a whole other ball game. 

Something I was longing for in the workplace was community. In Nigeria, we had tight-knit communities. I realized I had the same issue between jobs – being the “only”. People seeking answers from you that you just don’t have created too much friction for me. When I left, I shared with them that if they’re interested in diversifying their team, don’t take it one person at a time. It makes it feel like everything is on you. 

I realized I had the same issue between jobs – being the “only”.

I was fortunate enough to have a mentor to guide me through this process. She mentioned taking a job at a large social networking company to gain experience in tech. It was a 3-month interview process. It was a truly gruesome process, and, in the end, they said I wasn’t experienced enough despite my education and extensive background.

I took a 6-month break after that. I had been running and sprinting and realized the finish line kept moving every time I got close. That’s when I realized I needed a break. The plight of being an immigrant is ingrained in us to work hard. I’m a father to a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old who helped me realize experimentation and being playful fosters creativity.

In Nigeria, it’s hard to connect with creatives unless they’re in your community. I realized I could make an NFT community on my own – we essentially formed a group of Nigerians from all over during the pandemic who were interested in design. 

Q: Has there been anyone or any initiative that has helped you find a community in your field?

A: Andre 3000 said in an interview recently he’s not himself when he’s not creating or making things. I realized that was me – during that 6-month break I spent that time trying to understand crypto and NFTs. Funny enough, that’s how I got into Dropbox. I connected with a representative at Dropbox through the NFT community and they pushed me to interview for a position. 

I was very interested in how Dropbox’s technology could help connect people, but I was distrustful of corporations from previous experience. This individual convinced me their culture was very different and how much they were investing in creating a diverse team. I wasn’t looking, but I found my belonging. Now I’m almost a year in at Dropbox as a Mobile Product Designer.

There’s a lot that aligns with me that I see in Dropbox in terms of how I think and problem-solve. I’m curious, experimental, and playful. Dropbox allows me to be that person and validated what I’m doing – I’m not unfocused like people used to say I was. They made a schedule that allows me to be present and home with my family. Everyone’s rooting for me, they’re not just talking about it they’re doing it. 

I was even given a “Design Friend Forever” within the company who was a Black guy whom I connected with instantly. It was so comforting to talk as a Black person with a Black person – it made all the difference in my first few months. 

The manager I was working with connected me to DID to be the bridge between the two companies.

Q: What’s your “why” that drives your work as a designer?

A: I have to distill a lot of my experiences down to “why”. Why did my parents allow me to migrate to a hostile country on my own at 15? They worked in a small village then migrated to a larger city. They wanted to do better for their kids, and the West seemed like the answer. My brother was very similar to me. There was no place for us in Nigeria, but there also didn’t seem to be a place for us here.

My brother sadly died at the hands of police brutality in America. His “why” for coming to America was simply an education. The idea that education is something people don’t have access to and must risk their lives for is such a painful reality. 

I decided my life goal is to make an art and design school in Nigeria, called Kolewaju Art & Design Institute. I bought the land, my family is all going back to Nigeria for the summer, and we’re excited to hopefully see some progress on the project. At home with my own kids, we’re going to start having deep conversations about design principles and how those can be applied to design a better world.

I decided my life goal is to make an art and design school in Nigeria, called Kolewaju Art & Design Institute.

Some of my best work came from the loss of my brother and that’s what got attention because I was passionate about it. If I stay true to myself, I believe I’ll eventually be given an opportunity. 

This has become my purpose. My brother lost his life for this. I’ve journeyed far for this. 

Q: DID’s focus this Black History Month is “Black Futures” – celebrating where we’ve come from and using our collective stories, knowledge, and resources to propel the next generation of Black creatives forward. 

What, if anything, would you like to see change in the design industry to improve the situation for future Black creatives?

A: Here in the States, in every community, we lack art and design education. We lack a safe space for the “black sheep” of the world who are creative to flourish. Sometimes it’s not going to the best art school in America or going into debt for design education, but more about having access to outlets that help fulfill your needs as an artist to be creative.

Why are the best museums in the wealthiest neighborhoods as opposed to the hood? Everyone deserves access to that art no matter where they’re from. Many successful Black artists have their art on display in affluent areas and reputable museums, but I bet if that same art was shown in underprivileged neighborhoods, it would inspire generations of diverse designers for years to come.

Put art where the “black sheep” live. Share it in a way they can easily, safely, and affordably access it. Design is an incredible tool we can use to solve the world’s problems – we have to design for everyone.

We have to come together to start solving our own community’s problems rather than waiting for other people to do it. 

Posted: DID Team 00:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

Tags: #blackfutures #BlackHistoryMonth #meetDID #powerofdid #profiles

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