Washington, DC — Iddris Sandu knew he wanted to be involved in tech from the time he was a kid. He was inspired by Steve Jobs and taught himself how to code. Now in his early twenties, Sandu says he has been in rooms with some of the biggest tech companies and Hollywood royalty. He collaborated with the late Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle bringing a tech focus into Hussle's The Marathon Clothing store.
Hailing from the city of Compton, Calif. as well as Harbor City, Calif., Sandu is not only proud of the city that raised him but also the Ghanaian roots that exposed him to the world of tech. Sandu has made it his goal to use his skills in tech and coding to give back to underserved communities and get more black youth interested in tech.
YR Media’s Nayo Campbell spoke with Sandu about the importance of diversifying the tech industry, how he is merging hip hop and technology and what it was like to work with Nipsey Hussle.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Nayo Campbell: How did you get involved in tech?
Iddris Sandu: My first job was when I was 13, but I had been programming for two years prior. A person that worked at Google offered me an opportunity to shadow. This was around the time of the iPhone — I was super inspired by that so I just took the time to learn all that I could about programming. So that was just the beginning of everything and it only went up from there.
NC: Was it hard for people to take you seriously at such a young age?
IS: Yeah, but it's really about putting your money where your mouth is and knowing what you're talking about. Even now, I go to meetings where people don't know me or they don't recognize me and they don't understand me. [If] they do recognize me, they think I'm Hollywood, ‘He doesn't really know what he’s talking about,' and that I’m just riding a wave. And then when they start to hear me talk and talk about code they are like, ‘Oh. you're legit.’ So, yeah, just knowing that I have something of value that most people don’t have has allowed me to transcend in a room, whether it's [at] Google or sitting with anyone.
NC: Would you say your racial background is one of the biggest challenges that you have faced?
IS: Definitely, I would say that’s one of my biggest challenges. Just being able to change the perception in people's mind when it comes to skill level. It's like nine times out of ten when you think of a programmer, scientist or a designer you're thinking of a white person and not someone who is black. So that's the challenge we face every day that we are simultaneously breaking.
NC: What’s in the works for you?
IS: I am speaking at the black graduation next month at NYU, so that's huge. I also just taught a class at the Apple Store. I was jokingly telling my friend that I see so many rappers selling out shows, I sold out the Apple store. That's next-level flex right there ... I want to continue working on empowerment here and in Africa. I'm redesigning the parking meter system and it’s expected to roll out in California first and eventually move across the country. So the parking meter infrastructure will be more friendly for drivers in the city. It will be a huge hardware upgrade. It will be the Tesla of parking meters.
NC: In an interview with CNN, you mentioned you want to level the playing field between the black community and Silicon Valley. Can you talk more about how you're doing that?
IS: Currently, the students that I am teaching are learning how to create an operating system and then creating a program for other people to program on it. Not just how to build an app, not just how to build the next Facebook or Instagram, but how to build an iOS or the next Microsoft Windows OS. That will put them on the top of the food chain. Most of the time, communities of color are just taught to develop an app but that app is being controlled by another platform.
NC: Why do you think the tech industry is so slow at diversifying?
IS: The people in power don't understand the importance of diversity. People think diversity simply means color and adding that person to your team, but it also means addressing/working towards issues that are specific [to] a demographic. Unless you do that, you'll always be biased. You'll always be not diverse. You can have a lot of people [of color] but still not be diverse.
NC: You’ve been in the tech industry since you were very young. Is there anything that you wish that you would've known before entering the industry?
IS: I would say remain authentic at all times. The things that we use as disadvantages are actually advantages and we're just focusing on them in the wrong way. It's like if you have a triangle and you're trying to fit into a square, you might think something's wrong with you, but in reality you just need the right pattern. I will tell that to my old me. Be authentically you.
NC: You worked with Nipsey Hussle to create The Marathon Clothing store. Can you tell me more about this collaboration?
IS: I was like let's [look at] hip hop and the black community because I felt like we haven't harnessed our full power as a community. And so we wanted to really do that through technological empowerment. So the store was already done. He said to me, 'Yo, you know, not only do I want you to work on this store, but people like you are what's needed in the culture.'
NC: For those who haven't been able to make it to the store, can you tell me why it's so important and why it is needed for the culture?
IS: It's very important that the store is there on Slauson and Crenshaw because of the history and everything that's attached to it — the authentic storytelling. You need to visit [the store] to experience it and that's how we intended for it to be ... Unless you went there physically, words wouldn't be enough to describe the experience. It's something you need to go and see for yourself and download the app too. And you know, that's what Nipsey would want.
NC: What was it like working with Nipsey and merging tech with hip hop?
IS: He was one of kind. Everyone is saying that, but he was. I traveled with him, I ate with him and I met his family. He was always listening to books. We were very similar. He understood that he was a leader of the previous generation, and he believed I was the leader of this generation. He believed in me from day one. He was authentic, prolific and determined. Those were just some of the memories I had working with him, he had an incredible memory. His retention span was so crazy. He could retain a lot of information in his mind and use it in so many different ways. He was very strategic.