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Black in Tech: Deji Sonaike, Director of Field Operations at Takeoff

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Deji Sonaike, Director of Field Operations at Takeoff shares his story.

Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work? 

For as far back as I can remember, I have always been curious about everything around me. However, growing up in an era before the internet meant having a high level of trust in the information presented to you, having no external, authentic source of information verification. This combination of my curious personality and my actual internet-less existence created the paradox that was my childhood living, because I never shied away from asking the same questions until I was clear and satisfied. Looking back now, I think I must have made life difficult for the adults around me.

With a mother in Foreign Affairs and a father in Engineering, I had an exciting childhood growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. My childhood was a rollercoaster of adventure, discovery, exposure and awareness. I had the privilege of, firstly, being exposed to the fields of work of both of my parents and watching them excel in their individual areas; secondly, being able to travel the world by virtue of my mother’s work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was afforded the ability to live in different countries and that fed my curious and inquisitive nature. I needed no nudging to study and appreciate the various cultures I encountered; I did so with my whole heart, and my whole stomach (for how can you experience a culture without trying its native food)? All these experiences made for a very colorful and insightful “growing up” process for me, and I count it as a privilege.

Deji Sonaike Takeoff

Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

When it was time to attend university, I looked forward to my next adventure, but there was still a big decision to be made as to what path exactly I would be taking in this next stage of my life. Of course, as a Nigerian child in my generation, growing up and about to enter university in Nigeria, I had very little say in the matter. Conduct a survey of Nigerian University graduates of my generation and you would find that a great number of them studied what their parents wanted them to study, to suit the life that their parents had planned for them. I was not very likely to be an exception. Forget any other interest I may have had, I had no more than three options available to me to choose from. “To choose from”: therein lay the window of power I had to exercise concerning my future. The options available to me for a course of study were: Medicine, Law, and Engineering (in that order!). I had absolutely no interest in medicine or law, so those were out of the question. As for engineering, I held some sentiment for that one; I did enjoy the idea of building things up, and probably more importantly, it was my father’s field of work. So, I chose the least of 3 evils and dove into a course in the engineering line. Thus began my stint with Architecture. I say “stint” because my university education in Nigeria was short lived, as was my compulsion to study Architecture.

I moved to the United States and restarted my university studies at Rutgers University, New Jersey. What did I finally study? Economics and Finance. And yes, that is what I had always wanted to study. My passion for economics came from seeing the relevance of my mother’s work with the ministry of foreign affairs. Her work was my introduction to how the world runs and how economies spin, fail, rise, and so on. Watching how her job contributed to the shaping of countries inspired me and created my interest in Economics. I was specifically interested in MacroEconomics, which is the arm that deals with the economies of countries and governments. I started out with macroeconomics because I was passionate about studies that would revolve around driving economic change in developing countries, subsequently shaping the economies of those countries for the better. I tacked on the Finance angle to beef up the Economics study and give me a better handle on the entire field of work. So started my undergraduate degree in Economics and Finance. Ten years after that degree, I returned to school for my Executive MBA.

In the years between my degrees, I worked for three big box retailers and found tremendous success in the work I did. I worked at Target as Logistics Team Lead. Afterwards, I moved on to Walmart and clinched the role of Store Manager. At this point, I had begun desiring to take on my EMBA, and I started that as I moved on from Walmart to Bed Bath & Beyond, still in the role of store management. Like I mentioned earlier, I experienced great success in these places, but I also felt limited in my career path. So, I pushed and finished my EMBA.

Deji Sonaike Takeoff

What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

Innovation and growth were the main driving factors for me getting into tech. As an industry, it is one of the fastest growing and provides opportunities and solutions for a vast array of problems. The tech industry is constantly evolving and bringing us closer to innovation. I enjoy designing solutions that make a real impact, and can make our lives much better.

What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Takeoff? 

My career path prior to joining Takeoff was primarily focused on operations. I joined Amazon after completing my EMBA and worked in an Operations role for a couple of years. Leveraging my operational experience, I transitioned into a new division at Amazon that designed and built hiring solutions for last mile Amazon drivers. While in the role, I worked closely with all stakeholders and made multiple product suggestions to increase applicant throughput at all sites.

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as Director of Field Operations at Takeoff?

I joined Takeoff as a Director of Field Operations. My responsibilities at Takeoff involve working with my team to deliver an optimal Micro Fulfillment Center to our clients. We monitor operational performance and make continuous operational suggestions tailored to each unique client. We work with our clients and multiple Takeoff departments to help curate product solutions and innovations based on what clients want.

My career so far (which is just beginning as I still plan to do a lot more) has been an interesting journey, with turns I did not see coming but I embraced nonetheless. I can say that a big contributor to my success so far has been that same inquisitive nature from my childhood. I am still always asking and re-asking, checking and double checking, refusing to take anything at face value, and I believe that that has helped me progress, excel, go in the right directions and make fewer mistakes.

What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional? 

It is probably unexpected to hear me say I have not faced many obstacles in my life’s journey so far that I am aware of. It may even be disappointing, because most of us expect that with good success stories come a story of a challenging past. I have no horror stories to share, no riveting “grass to grace” tales to recount. In my mind, a number of factors may be responsible for this; maybe because I have always had elevated positions, my voice has always carried quite some weight; maybe because of the state of the modern world, I have not needed to endure unspeakable trials. Whatever the reason, I am glad to say that I have been privileged to not encounter many significant obstacles in my life and career. As far as being black is considered an obstacle, I have thankfully also not seen that in my own experiences. I know that may not be the case for many African Americans. But as an African who migrated to the US as a young adult, I had never before considered myself “black” — we were all the same where I came from! So, I did not enter my field of work with the mindset of having been oppressed as a black person.

That being said, I would also like for people of color who come across my story to realize that their blackness will not limit them in the tech space. In my experience, whatever form of racial obstacles and prejudice you may have faced in the past will not apply in the tech industry, so do not hesitate to make your mark. The industry is so big and is getting bigger everyday. 

What types of programs and initiatives does Takeoff have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

At Takeoff we value Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Diversity is even one of our core values! We celebrate our talented employees and believe we are stronger as a team when our people bring different perspectives and experiences to the table. Regarding programs and initiatives, we did a mentorship with Hack.Diversity last year and participate in charities that give back to underrepresented populations.

What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

There is space in tech for you! Also, there is a lot to be done in tech companies that is not centered around writing code, and I would just like for everyone to know that. If that is not your area of interest, explore the wide range of opportunities beyond coding in tech companies. Get out there, see where there’s space for your talent; where you can transfer your skills. Also, do not be afraid to use job sites and to network. Personally, I’d always be willing to connect and help people trying to break into tech companies, and I know that there are other people of the same opinion.

While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

I believe that, for example, the Black in Tech feature organized by Venturefizz is a great idea! Companies need to keep pushing for diversity and ensuring that people know that there are more roles in tech companies than the ones that most obviously come to mind. I believe that a great way to achieve this is grassroot mobilization and representation at career fairs. Companies need to take the conversations and the push for diversity to the grassroots and dispel the daunting process of transitioning into tech for people who are not privileged to have the information. Reaching students trying to navigate their career path in their heads is also a great step!

I am honored that I was given the chance to tell my story here, to serve as an inspiration to those who may be deterred, and to promote blackness in tech. I also thank you for taking the time to read about me.

So that I don’t come across as all work and no play, I should probably mention my hobbies. If I could list three of my favorite fun activities in the world, they would be: travel, travel and travel! I mentioned earlier that I traveled a lot when I was younger, and now it’s my absolute favorite thing to do! Travel and eat! I formed an appreciation for different cultures and their food early in life, and that has never left me.

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Takeoff is helping grocers thrive in eCommerce.

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