In conversation with Dara Oke

Saffron Huang
Jan 5 · 6 min read
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Photo credit: Sam Fu

Los Angeles, California. Dara Oke is currently a Product Design Lead at Netflix. She’s also the founder of Afriquette, a media platform that tells stories of identity, culture, and creativity across Africa and its diaspora. Before that, she spent a few years living and working in West and Southern Africa, supporting early-stage startups, building creative communities, and researching innovation and development across emerging and frontier markets. Saffron Huang, on Interact Communications, caught up with Dara in early January.

Hey Dara! How would you describe yourself and what you do?

In my nine-to-five, I am a product designer at Netflix and I’m focused on the studio part of the company. So my focus is designing products for creators and their creative process. Outside of that I run a media platform that hopes to elevate African creators.

Where are you from, where are you right now, and where have you called home?

Home is such a fascinating concept to me. I’m Nigerian and I was raised in Texas. I currently live in LA and I ended up in LA after spending a few years calling a couple of places home. I spent a lot of time living in Western and Southern Africa, so I consider Lagos and Cape Town to be versions of home.

What inspired that move to Western and Southern Africa, and how was it?

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I was living in Seattle and working at Microsoft, and we had this concept that we’re building for the billions. But I felt like there was a disconnect between the lived experience of the billions that we wanted to build for and our understanding of their lives. Also as a first generation Nigerian, I was really intrigued by what was happening on the continent. I wanted to head back home for personal reasons, to reconnect with my roots. It was critical for me to have a better understanding of life there. I also think the tech industry on the continent is more vibrant than anywhere else, and wanted to be part of that. So I moved.

Can you say more about how the tech industry in Africa is different from that of the US?

The opportunities are just different, or what people are focusing on. There are many infrastructural constraints on the continent, which present immense opportunity. That’s created products and innovation that to me far exceed what’s available in the US. For instance, financial technology in Africa is starting at a different point than that in the US where there was a lot of existing infrastructure. So people are approaching the problem from the perspective of, what does it look like to build something out of nothing, or what does it look like to create for the completely unbanked. In the US I saw incremental improvements in some domain, while across Africa, technologists were completely overhauling systems or starting from scratch.

How did Afriquette, your media platform centered around African creators, come about?

After I made one of my first trips back to Lagos, I realized that there was an incredible creative movement happening on the continent, but not much sharing across it. If I’m in Dar es Salaam, do I know what the creative movement looks like in Dakar? Do I know what they’re doing in Johannesburg? This was an opportunity to spotlight the creative movements happening and share that within the continent. There’s additionally a long-held problem of the way the world views Africa from outside, and providing this platform was also an opportunity to shift that.

You started your career doing software engineering and now you’ve transitioned to more creative roles in tech. How did that develop?

I believe very deeply in experimentation in life. I pursue things out of a desire to experiment and I think that is why my career has been a bit nonlinear. For instance, approaching the move back to West Africa with: what do I not know, what do I desire to know, do I have the risk tolerance to absorb this phase of experimentation? I don’t consider these moves as career pivots even if they might seem that way. They’re just incremental changes. I started to delve more deeply into design, for instance, when I was working with startups in Nigeria, and realized that this is a skill I have which could probably add the most value.

At the moment, your Twitter bio says that you’re typically thinking about product, ethics and design. Can you say more about how those three fields intersect for you?

I think that everything that is created has a standpoint or takes a stance. There’s long been an argument that one should not consider ethics in the development of software. But even the conscious or subconscious decision to consider or not consider ethics is itself a stance. So when I say that I think about product, ethics and design, I’m saying that in every decision I’m making, I’m evaluating creations based on the implications for the world.

Can you say more about your product design work with creators at Netflix?

If we think about Netflix as a movie production company, there’s a great opportunity to rethink the way films are created. The process of creating a film is ripe for disruption. For example, pitching, or collaboration. I do a lot of work to enable people in different locations to collaborate, and since I spend a lot of time creating, to be part of designing that process in different creative domains has been a really interesting learning experience.

What do you do for fun?

I do photography for fun, but am kind of in a creative rut right now. I started shooting forever ago, and things just change. One: our phones are really, really powerful. It feels like there’s less intention that goes into the process of creating a photograph. A lot of what I really love is the process, and I’m trying to form it for myself.

Also, now that there’s a lot of shared work and shared inspiration on Instagram and other platforms, I’m now also going through a discovery process of: what does my art look like?

So I’m now dabbling in film photography. Beyond photography, I’ve been learning my native language every week with a tutor. I also write quite a bit.

Is there anything new coming up for you in 2021 that you’re excited about?

About two months ago a friend and I hosted a live visual experience called As Told By Us, where we curated a bunch of short films by creators across the African diaspora — different parts of Africa, Brazil, the UK, the US. It was an amazing, beautiful community experience that we didn’t expect.

We planned to host it once as a nonprofit fundraiser, but with the reception we got, we would love to bring people together again to experience things created by African artists, and to stretch and rethink that event. And I’m excited about leaving 2020 behind!

You’ve been part of the Interact community for some time; how has Interact influenced or impacted you so far?

Interact has been a life-changing experience for me. It enabled me to feel like things were possible. That’s the shortest way to explain it. Being around young people who are highly self aware, believe in experimentation and approach life with a sense of intellectual rigor. That urged me to re-evaluate life and what I wanted to do from the lens of anything’s possible. I’ve also met some of my best friends in Interact, and I moved to Nigeria at the same time as some Interacters and so we were embarking on that journey together.

I feel like an old Interacter at this point because it’s been four or five years. I’ve been part of Interact on the back-end as well. Seeing the amount of thoughtfulness that goes into creating and fostering the community in a way that still allows it to be authentic taught me a lot.

Interact retreats are very magical because there’s intentionally minimal structure. It’s very free-form, so everyone makes it their own, and no one has the same experience at a retreat. That makes for really intimate conversations and authentic friendships.

Amazing. Also, you’re actually the person that came up with the idea of doing these interviews for Interact. Thank you for starting this initiative!

Yeah, it’s cool to see this continue on! Thank you for doing this.

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Interact is a community of mission-driven technologists. Applications for the 2021 Fellowship are now open at joininteract.com.

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