Tech Architect Iddris Sandu Is Creating a Virtual Reality
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Iddris Sandu, digital architect and founder of tech incubator spatial LABS (sLABS), wants to use his skills to show the new generation there’s an abundance of space for them to take over the tech industry.
I know you were born and raised in Accra, and then you moved to Harbor City when you were three. I thought it was interesting that you began taking apart remote controls as a kid – you were a self-starter at such a young age. I think it’s in our blood as immigrants or kids of immigrants, where we turn that skill set on automatically.
I think at one point, we were all immigrants. America seceded from the British Empire to come to another land. And every year, we’re taught that America was established by the founding fathers. So the people that started America were founders of companies. Just being an immigrant, I don’t think it’s necessarily [about] just having that startup culture, but it's just realizing that we're within a space where we are founders. I think that's instinctually what it is. You come into a different space and you're like, “What can be created? How can I change my reality? How can I change the reality of those around me, whether it be my immediate family or the heritage of where I come from?”
As a young person, I always had that thought of wanting to make amazing, great things in this world. But I want to show the perception of what a Ghanaian-American kid could achieve. You could think about the Steve Jobs and the Elon Musks, but you also can insert this Ghanian kid in there as well. They redefined what was possible and elevated the bar for the next person. I think that's what it is [with us] immigrants: we come here and establish something that shows what's possible. Our parents fought for that. My little sister was like, “Mom when you were younger, why didn't you?” That was her thing. I was like, “she didn't so you could.”
They opened the doors for us.
The way that we're now able to have these very open-minded ways of thinking, chasing our dreams, and doing things that were never done before. It's not that they weren't capable of that. But they had to ensure that we could. They couldn't risk not doing it so their kids also couldn't do it. They couldn't think about, “If I don't do this, what does that mean for my child that might not be born yet or might be too young to understand this?” So it's a really interesting duality.
As a kid that grew up in Ghana and moved [to America], it was really about shifting that perception of what could be for the next version of me – whether that was my own kids, or a kid from Ghana. I'm in this tech space because I know what's possible.
Tech used to feel so unattainable for us. But there’s a shift happening now.
People say all the time: ‘People of color or Black people are behind in technology.’ That’s not true. That statement doesn’t observe the full magnitude of what we’re within. It’s not that we’re behind; it’s just that we’re not leading the way that we would like to see. We are early adopters. We’re the first to hop on TikTok and the first to go buy an iPhone. But we hop on as consumers, not creators.
What I want to show people is that we need to be the first to create what’s to be used, not use what was created for us. And that’s the true power. That’s why over the last three years I stopped fighting for diversity. I don’t want diversity anymore—I want representation. You can’t take the tree that is dying at the root and just change it to another color and say that’s diversity. It’s still rotten. So we need another seed that’s planted that germinates into something completely different. I fundamentally believe that in the next 10 years, some of the largest tech startups that we’ll see will be ones that integrate software and hardware together.
PHOTO BY LEEBAN
What made you decide to partner with JAY-Z’s Marcy Venture Partners last year?
I’ve always gravitated toward JAY. Even as a young kid, JAY-Z reminded me of where I would be. I connected because he was talking about economic empowerment, being able to separate away from convention and luxury. He was just a classy rapper. He would say things that were like, ‘Man, JAY knows how to stomp on people in the most humble way possible!’ [laughs] It’s like, would you rather be the old me or the new you?
He got us to switch the jerseys to the suits and all of that.
At some point, Jay-Z was the voice of the youth. [Quoting 2005’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leon Remix”], “I'm not a businessman, I'm a business man. So when [the opportunity] finally aligned itself, it was after collaborating with Rihanna and Beyoncé. It just happened at the right timing, the spirit of Nipsey just brought us together. When we launched The Marathon clothing store, Emory [Jones, Jay-Z’s longtime friend] came out. Jay was actually supposed to come to the store, but he couldn't. When it did happen and we sat down, we just formed this instant bond. We met three times back to back after that. He was like, “I want to spend more time with you” because he felt like he saw a part of himself in me. It was his ability to be able to share information and knowledge with somebody that he knew would be able to grasp and know what to do with it now.
Sometimes that’s a hard part of guiding a mentee, especially when they're much younger than you. People that are older than us often say, “You're too young to understand this.” But it was this instant connection of, “You're ready to absorb this information, even though you won't see the true impact of it for years to come.” But he also looked at me like, “Expose me to things that I don’t know.”
Let’s discuss your new product LNQ that launches this spring.
LNQ is a decentralized payment platform we’re creating that allows people to connect with each other using the power of clothing. What would it be like if that sweater you had on right now could also get you into a concert, but could also get you to the airport? It can book an Airbnb and also help you call an Uber. We’re thinking about embedded computing into clothing, which allows you to truly be free. You’re not tethered to your phone anymore because any physical item that you have right now can be used as a credit card or a payment processor system.
You’re greatly inspired by art and fashion, and you fuse those interests with tech.
I grew up on Dieter Rams, Naoto Fukasawa, Marc Newsome, Jonathan Ive and Zaha Hadid. But I also grew up on Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest. I was that kid that would look at Zaha Hadid’s designs while listening to The Neptunes, or listen to Lauryn Hill while coding. That’s the duality of my childhood.
So by the time I got immersed in tech, I was like, ‘I could run laps around all these people’ because I knew how to code-switch in both of those worlds. I knew how to talk to somebody in tech to the highest level of an engineer. But also I could be social at an event. That’s the level of authenticity that needs to exist in tech. Algorithm bias, diction bias or having to look like this to fit in—all of that is out. We’re rewriting those fabrics in real time.
Programming is one of the only industries where you actually don’t need any form of degree to not only learn it but to qualify you to create something. What blockchain and cryptocurrency talk about is that programming is one of the first skill sets that requires a decentralized base to create on top of it—that’s why it’s so lucrative. You could go on Google right now and learn how to code and make money on top of it. Programmers are the ones that are influencing cryptocurrency the most, because it happened to be one of the first decentralized job task forces.
And now we're the leading group in cryptocurrency.
NFTs, all of that. We have that ability to transcend what's expected of us.
JAY-Z’s Marcy Venture Partners invested in Sandu in October 2021. PHOTO BY LENNY “KODAKLENS” SANTIAGO
What are your thoughts about bringing virtual reality into a natural world?
One of my favorite designers that I admire very much is Dieter Rams, who [wrote] Ten Principles for Good Design. I refer to principle six all the time. It’s that good design is honest. It doesn’t try to be something that it’s not, nor does it attempt to sell you on something it knows you cannot fulfill. What I love about that is when we think about virtual reality and metaverse, it’s not about selling people dreams. It’s showing them how to interact with the real world around them in a completely new and meaningful way.
We don’t want to take people into a virtual world that removes them from their real world. They still need to have visual dissonance and know where they’re going. Augmented reality is able to take reality as it is and simulate pixels on top of it to convince you that your reality has been altered. That’s the beauty of it because you can have objects that are real that you can pick up—like this [bottle of] JUST Water—and look at through the glasses. It can give me more information to be able to enhance my physical and spatial cognizance around this water, or I can know where this water was sourced.
It's like entering a new realm but in real-time.
In real life, right? And it respects your surroundings. When you're talking to somebody, the majority of the time, they won't even know you're in this virtual world until you tell them. But with VR, it's like you clearly just know. They're in La La Land or something. So I think augmented reality is going to be more natural for people to experience as we talk about the metaverse and explore extended reality or mixed reality ecosystem or the world.
I meant to ask you this earlier, because you discovered, your passion for tech at such an early age. But what was that initial spark?
So I was inspired by Steve Jobs getting on the stage in 2007 and getting the iPhone a year after that. I believe it was in the same month as my birthday, which is May 7. Then the movie Iron Man comes out. I thought, “I want to be Tony Stark”. I've been through so much as a child that reminded me of when Tony was captured by the Ten Rings and was in this cave. He had to literally use his brain to make a suit and fly himself out of there, or else he would be killed.
It was like that analogy of the experience of the Black man and the Black woman. We have to work 10 times harder to be able to escape from this ceiling that society will hit us with by the time we’re 30. Like Tupac said, you only get about five years to exercise at your complete capacity in America. Then they try and shut you down. It's difficult for people to keep their youth as they grow up. So by the time somebody is like 30 or 35, they have no creativity and drive to want to change things because society has beat it out of them completely. Because it started when you were a kid when you were told what you can’t do more than what you could do.
It’s true because I recently turned 30 and I had to really sit with myself like, “What the hell do I want to do next?” You have to silence that voice that’s trying to diminish your creativity or stifle you.
You have to protect [your creativity] at all costs because society will try and remove it from you. Because creativity is the birth and spark of innovation. When you look at an oppressed group, and I put “oppressed” quotes because I don't consider myself as someone that's oppressed. Like, you don't get to say that I'm oppressed. Carl Jung said that you're not what has happened to you, you’re who you choose to become. Although we've gone through oppression, I don't consider myself oppressed because I have the ability to change my reality. It's not dictated by my past actions.
What advice would you give to the new-gen of tech?
Wherever you are and whoever you are, you are already within a space where so much value can be added to whatever is being created. What’s going to make this space look different is the representation that you bring into it. Whether you come from Philly, Atlanta, Chicago, Ghana, Compton. That’s what’s going to shift the tech space. Not you leaving that at the door and becoming another robot. We’ve seen an Elon; we’ve seen a Steve— we don’t want to see that again. We want something different. And the world hasn’t seen what you look like in this space.
In the words of Pop Smoke, we gotta shake the room.
Exactly. This whole [idea of] ‘I want a seat at the table’… I want to throw my own party and bring my own table. That conversation is no longer about diversity; it’s no longer us saying we need to be at a company that wasn’t built for us to begin with. We deserve to build the next company and we also deserve to hire the people that should run it. We need some more seats at this table we brought. Another thing that I want to emphasize is for all my female entrepreneurs out there: We need you. This space is only going to get better if we have you here.
The world will not get better with many more overly hyper-masculine toxic startup energy. We need more women to be able to restore the balance. A majority of tech-based startups are started by men. We need more women at these companies to be able to change that perception. We need more empathy, and that comes from the divine feminine. It’s part of my mission to usher that in.