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Setbacks helped me to succeed — Oluwaseyi Sosanya

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Oluwaseyi Sosanya, 33, is the co-founder of Gravity Sketch and the inventor of the 3D weaver loom. In this interview, he speaks about his career and related matters

What is your educational background?

I studied mechanical engineering at Oregon State University. Shortly into the programme, I discovered that not all mechanical engineers make physical things and a majority of the profession was based on incremental improvements of existing objects and processes. This discovery made me turn towards design as a focus for my career and postgraduate education. I attended a double master’s course by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London, titled “Innovation Design Engineering” and graduated in 2014.

What is your work history?

The earliest work experience I had was assisting my mother in her gardening company as a young boy. This was a backbreaking job and it taught me what it felt like to earn one’s pay. In high school, I had a number of jobs ranging from making pizza to being a cafe clerk and janitor. During my undergraduate days, I held two jobs. During the school year, I worked as a mechanic in a bicycle shop and during the summers, I worked as a carpenter framing houses from wood. After my graduation, I worked as a CAD draftsman for contractors building homes in Oregon. I then moved to Taiwan to learn Chinese (independently) and during that time, I also taught English for a year. I returned to Oregon to work for an independent designer, Ken Tomita. Together with his partner, I helped build the company, Grove, as a design engineer. After this job, I was offered a position as a material specialist at Pegatron in Taiwan. This position lasted for a year after which I enrolled for my master’s programme. After graduation, I was recruited as an innovation design leader at Jaguar Land Rover. I worked there for two years and then left to focus on turning my graduation project, Gravity Sketch, into a company.  I currently work full-time on this venture.

What year did you start your company?

In 2014, I started my design consultancy, Sosa Fresh, and together with my classmates, we started Gravity Sketch in the same year. This is also the year I graduated from my master’s studies.

How much did your startup cost?

We started off with a small grant of about £8,500 from the James Dyson Foundation. With this money, we were able to develop the foundation of our business. My partners and I then put in personal funds and sweat equity for a full year before bringing in additional funds.

We initially applied for grants and awards while we worked as freelance designers and engineers on the side at the same time. We were awarded additional grants and we are now raising a seed round of investment.

How were you able to surmount the challenges you encountered when you started your business?

The biggest challenge we faced was innovation. Innovation is a word that is thrown around a lot of times and people seem to try and apply it to everything that they do in their company. However, true innovation can often be years ahead of its time and misunderstood by the very end user you hope to attract or design and develop for. This means that you have a great idea but the market is not mature enough for your idea to really take off.  Because there is no precedent in the market, this makes it difficult to quantify the potential market size as well as benchmark what success or failure would look like in this future market. We had a rocky start in our early days as we were all friends with similar skills and shortcomings, so we had to really have clear communication to understand where we are and where we want to go as a team and as individuals.

You created a 3D weaver loom and you also used it to create a shoe sole. Tell us about it.

The 3D weaver was my solo research project during my postgraduate studies. The aim was to explore and expand on the age-old practice of weaving. Through extensive research with traditional weavers and visits to high-tech textile manufacturing facilities, I saw a potential to develop a new woven structure not based on two dimensions, but rather three. The machine was built out of the necessity and desperation to represent this idea and explore it further. Once this was developed, a host of ideas flooded out from the potential it could have. As the machine was not large enough to create a full garment, it was the perfect size to explore this technology for a shoe sole.

On the sustainability side, the shoe sole is one of the materials that we depend on, and the expanded foams they are usually made from have a huge environmental impact.  However, a more sophisticated and sustainable solution is much needed in this industry. I also love footwear and would have loved to practise footwear design, and through this project, I found a nice balance between technology, craft, and footwear design. The shoe sole has a woven structure that has a denser woven structure in areas that need to support more weight, and more open woven structures in areas that need to provide more suspension.

Who and what influenced your career?

Everyone that I have ever worked with has influenced me in one way or another. These great experiences have given me a knowledge base and core skill to build from. The poor experiences have given me an understanding of people’s behaviours, how to empathise, and where I need to improve as a person working with people. The key figures who have stood out in terms of my career are my mother and stepfather. My mother’s drive to build and succeed as a professional woman under any pressure, and my stepfather’s clear thinking and meticulous sequencing and planning, influenced me. These qualities have completely influenced the way I approached life from a very early stage and every work opportunity I have had in-between. The most interesting have always been people who come from unexpected backgrounds, ranging from their ethnic to academic to professional, to find success through unique paths. Someone that came from finance and moved into design has had a big impact as this is an industry that we don’t see many minorities in. Working with people from different backgrounds who have had success in this space has also been a big influence.

Were there any setbacks?

There have been several setbacks and I am sure there are several to come. Financial setbacks have been the most familiar for many, but there is always money out there, and there is always a way to get it. Because of this, I do not view this as a major setback, but rather an obstacle you can cleverly find your way around. In my early days of coming into design and engineering, I had a lot of rejections from schools, workplaces, and potential collaborators. I look at these as opportunities for growth and improvement. In each rejection, I was able to learn something about myself, my skill set, and where I need to improve, so these were much needed setbacks in order to propel further. I have had to fight hard to get to a place where I can find balance between being an engineer and a designer simultaneously. This has led to some imbalances in my work/life and has caused a disconnection with friendships, family, and close loved ones. These setbacks have given me clarity on who I am as a person, what I want for myself and my career, and most importantly the areas which I can improve and become better, not only as a designer and engineer, but as a friend, son and sibling.

What words of encouragement do you have for youths who wish to succeed in their various career paths?

I believe we all have our own path to walk. I encourage anyone looking to go out and start something independently to first listen; listen to yourself and your peers in the space, talk to people in your field as well as people from other fields. There are gaps to fill in any industry and creative thinking, the ability to adapt and innovation is the key to filling these gaps. Don’t go benchmarking yourself and success against that of your peers. Looking at replication will always leave you chasing behind your competition.

Build a good team of trusted people. This is extremely important. Friends and family could be great partners but also could cause a lot of friction. This is because they have a pre-existing understanding of your personality and may not see you in your true entrepreneurial light.

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