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Iddris Sandu, a tech genius, software engineer and cultural architect

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Iddris Sandu is the technological virtuoso behind algorithms that made Uber, Instagram and Snapchat what they are now. The software engineer also considers himself a “cultural architect” who aims to “level the playing field” between Silicon Valley and young communities of colour.

Most tech geniuses start young and Ghanaian prodigy Iddris Sandu is no exception. Born and raised in Harbor City, California by his Ghanaian parents, Iddris started learning programming on his own at a public library at the tender age of 10. Here he met a designer from Google, who went on to offer him an internship opportunity at the company’s headquarters. At age 13, Iddris had his first experience with programming and worked on projects such as the initial Google blogger, Google Plus, among others.

Then at age 15, Sandu created an app for his school that gave students turn by turn directions to navigate their classrooms. He went on to receive an honorary presidential scholar award for this app during the presidency of former U.S. President Barack Obama at just 16 years of age.

He did not go to college, telling CNN that, “I couldn’t afford it, being a minority,” he said and that he didn’t want to “wait four years; I wanted to make an impact now.”

Sandu still went on to write an algorithm that he sold to Instagram which filtered key sites or activities by a user’s location to identify possible interests, however the program has since been overhauled. By the age of 18, he was consulting for Snapchat before moving on to Uber, where he created a software (Autonomous Collision Detection Interface) for its self-driving cars.

“We use a sensor to measure your spinal position in a car,” he explained to CNN. “And then we also use a device to measure your hand position, so we can tell where your hands were in a car.”

Despite major success with giant tech companies, Sandu was driven to create change within his community.

“Information is one of the highest forms of class. And that is what keeps people divided. You should be able to think on a higher level, instead of being strictly consumers. And people of colour in particular are more likely to be consumers than creators. It’s really hard to get out of poverty or to change the structure of economic power if you’re always going to be a consumer rather than creating. Shifting that narrative is what I’ve been trying to do. And thus far, it’s worked, it’s successful.” He told Face2Face

Read: Major investment will help Rwanda become an African tech destination

In broadening his horizons he has partnered with prominent African-American figures such as recently departed Nipsey Hustle, Kanye West and Jaden Smith. For the latter he will create augmented-reality experiences around music and politics for the tech festival ComplexCon this year.

With the late Nipsey Hustle he transformed an abandoned storefront in Los Angeles into the Marathon Clothing Store in 2017. The “smart store” lets customers download exclusive music and other digital content via an app.

Cultural Architect

The tech wiz attributes his intense work ethic to the strong African icons he admired growing up. He explained to CNN that these include Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, plus the late former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan and Nigerian afro beat pioneer Fela Kuti.

“There is a division in the tech world, and to be a person of colour in a dominant field that doesn’t look like you is tough, but definitely needed to directly affect and empower the culture,” he told Face2Face.

Sandu intends to host student workshops in some of Africa’s most populous cities.

“The next tech leaders are going to come from Africa. Why? Because they are exposed to problems which they have the solutions to,” he told CNN.

He wants to teach African kids to build platforms they also own. “What’s happening right now is we are all on Instagram, we are all on Facebook, Snapchat, all this tech giants, and we are letting them control the narrative of how our stories can be told,” Sandu said.

“If we want to really tell our stories the way they need to be told, we should focus on pushing forward platforms that we create so we can tell our best narratives,” he added.

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