Hack, Hustle and Design The Future

Using values-centered design to build agency at scale with Olatunde Sobomehin, Founder and Lead Servant of StreetCode Academy

Picture: The Future’s Happening by Patrick Beaudouin

When you meet Olatunde (“Tunde”) Sobemehin, you don’t soon forget it. As the founder, CEO, and Lead Servant of StreetCode Academy, a community initiative to empower a generation of underrepresented leaders, Tunde exudes passion, commitment, authentic connection, and care. He’s the kind of inspiring leader whose clarity of vision and purpose is so compelling, you can’t help but ask how to get involved.

We asked Tunde to join our panel of futurists, leaders, and social impact pioneers at The Future’s Happening event hosted at the Stanford d.school earlier this year to explore the intersection of futures and design practices. Although Tunde would be the first to say that he is not a trained “futurist,” StreetCode’s mission to “Hack, Hustle, and Design the Future” reads like a modern-day manifesto for futures thinking.

Like many futurists, Tunde’s bold vision for the future is deeply rooted in his experience and memories of the past. “When I enrolled at Stanford as a student in 1998, East Palo Alto was a diverse community. Residents had a lot of self-determination and the culture was vibrant. However, the community often wasn’t a part of the conversations we were having at Stanford, even though it was right down the street.” After he graduated, Tunde decided to dedicate his life to changing the conversation to be more inclusive and empowering of diverse perspectives and talents.

According to Tunde, “Over the years, we looked at what programs would be ideal to be a part of. There was a growing gap around coding. And as we all know, coding is a skill and literacy that, as President Barack Obama once said, is just as relevant and foundational as the ABCs.”

So, Tunde started a coding program for kids in East Palo Alto who didn’t have access to the same resources as other kids in the area. Although there wasn’t much of an appetite for coding at first, Tunde and his team spent a lot of time communicating the bigger picture opportunity. Coding isn’t just about learning how to program, but rather it’s about creating a new pathway to a better future and more agency for East Palo Alto and other underserved communities.

Soon after starting the StreetCode Academy, Tunde realized that the tech industry was looking for more than just coders, and the community wanted to be more than just coders. As a result, Olatunde broadened the scope of what he was doing. He and his team came up with the tagline “Hack, hustle, and design the future” to reflect the full potential of the program. Hack was the coding part; hustle the entrepreneurship part; and design the creativity part.”

Picture: The Future’s Happening by Patrick Beaudouin

Explained Tunde, “We want to become a true part of the innovation culture. This design school [referring to the Stanford d.school] — the hub of innovation in the world — is interdisciplinary. It brings together every element of our creative ecosystem in one place. We aim to do the same thing. We couldn’t just be a coding boot camp. We couldn’t just focus on a particular segment. We really had to think about this differently. And so, it’s hack, hustle, and design.”

Tunde continued, “But it was hack, hustle, design to what end? We talked about the future because self-determination was both the individual and collective characteristic as a community. East Palo Alto is in a transitional moment. From my vantage point, as a collective, it’s wrestling with survival. We feel helpless against the economic pressures and other forces arrayed against us. We need to be able to say, ‘We’re going to be self-determining, we’re going to be able to do what we want to do as an individual, as a family, as a collective, as a community.’ Communities like East Palo Alto have to be equipped to be part of the conversation.”

Reflecting on the importance of futures-centered design, Tunde puts the most emphasis on the core values of the people he’s designing for. “For us, it’s actually about values-centered design. The values of the families we work with at StreetCode are very different than the values of the campus that we’re on today, or the values of a company like Facebook. When we design with values at the center, we all have different outcomes. It’s important both for the agency of an individual network and collective self-determination perspective, but also from the perspective of getting the right values to create a world that we all benefit from.”

Recently Tunde took a bunch of StreetCode students and teachers to Montgomery and Selma to help inform their work and the future that they’re working toward. According to Tunde, “The idea behind the visit to Alabama was less to propagate our ideas of values, and more about learning from history and exploring the deep-seeded values in action that changed the trajectory of engagement — such as the voting rights movement, which was sparked in Selma. It was the people of Selma who put their lives and their personal well-being at risk to ensure that every American could vote. The idea of the universal vote was a stated American value that was not followed in practice. People risked their lives and livelihoods to make it an equitable right.”

Tunde reflected on the greater impact of the trip, “We got from our visit that there is a hierarchy and a way of thinking that has permeated every single element of our way of life. And you can see a similar hierarchy across different sectors. There are the 95 percent of prosecutors who give us a criminal justice system that’s broken. Only 3 percent of venture capital is going to our communities — leading to a gap in innovation. The same mindset has permeated throughout our history. We wondered, how do you really turn that mindset around? How do you create a society that’s different from those precedents?”

Inspired by the actions of the people of Selma, Tunde has been working to create a Silicon Valley that models values in action. What role can East Palo Alto play in helping shape a different narrative that doesn’t export a broken system across the globe? How can we shape a different future? In fully experiencing such a historic place, Tunde’s trip not only deepened his understanding of the past and the courage embodied by those leaders, he also gained insight and empathy for what the future needs from him and the StreetCode community.

I asked Tunde what he thinks about how StreetCode will shape the community of the future, and what needs to be done today.

The first thing Tunde shared is the importance of mindset. “How do you make education more student-driven and more student-centered? Of course, they should have some agency into what they’re learning and why they’re learning it, but for the most part it’s still not done. So, the first mindset is really about the future: You can do what you want to do — what do you want to change? How can you change it? Ask that question because you are empowered to do so.”

The second thing is skills. You have to have the core skills that allow you to be a contributing part of building what’s needed.

And the third thing is network. “How do we get involved in the conversations that are most important? How do we get in the rooms where those decisions are being made? How is this room accessible to that community? And, how is that community accessible to this community?”

But, according to Tunde, “Mindset is at the heart. Mindsets of individuals multiply to create a mindset of a community. And that community can inspire and connects with other communities.”

That’s agency at scale.