It’s all about balance. I remember listening to Arianna Huffington’s episode of Reid Hoffman’s masters of scale podcast. During the episode Arianna stressed the importance of balance in the entrepreneurial journey. I agree with Arianna’s stance on balance. All things said being a startup founder is one of the most demanding professions in the world. Building a startup will likely require you to work longer hours and undertake more stress than many other professions. However, experiencing burn out is not a compulsory aspect of being a startup founder. I exercise, meditate daily, sleep sufficiently and ensure that when I am not working I am truly ‘signed out’ mentally.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adeseye Lawal — Solarin, the CEO & Founder of Dojo. Dojo seeks to democratise access to mentorship and make a huge dent on the diversity, inclusion and equity challenges faced by ambitious people of colour seeking to progress in the world of work today. Dojo is a mobile app that makes it really easy for people of colour to start and manage mentorship relationships. Adeseye draws insights from his upbringing in a single parent household and past experiences as a victim of knife crime. Mentorship changed the game for Adeseye and Dojo was launched to make mentorship more accessible. Adeseye is an Alumni of the Durham University Business School where he achieved a distinction in MSc Management. Adeseye also holds a BA Business Economics degree from the University of Leicester where he achieved a first-class classification.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Whilst in the later stages of her pregnancy with me, my mother became aware of my father’s affair with our family tailor. Subsequently, my mother moved to the UK from Nigeria as a refugee in the 90s. After narrowly avoiding deportation she successfully sought asylum. Following a tumultuous number of years she obtained indefinite leave to remain in the UK. We moved around a bit before ultimately settling in the Finsbury Park area of North London. I attended Ambler Primary School in Finsbury Park before moving on to Highbury Grove Secondary School. During my adolescent years I struggled with what I later learned was Dyspraxia.
Importantly, during secondary school I began to long for a sense of identity which may have stemmed from my practically non-existent relationship with my father. This search for identity and belonging led me down the path of joining a notorious North London based gang. My gang involvement ultimately culminated in me being stabbed in the chest at the age of 16. Justified scrutiny from my family resulted in me moving out of the North London. During the two year period following the stabbing I lived with my elder brother in the Suburban area of Surbiton in the Borough of Kingston. After completing my A levels I made the decision to read BA Business Economics at the University of Leicester where I achieved a first class Degree classification.
Following my undergraduate degree I completed an MSc in Management at Durham University Business School where I achieved a Distinction. After my time at Durham I undertook product and operational roles at several startups before ultimately starting the Dojo journey in 2018. Many people often asked how I turned my life around. Mentorship completely changed the game for me and took me from the brink of imprisonment to being the CEO of a tech startup. The social capital, moral support and guidance of mentors and like-minded peers has been life changing and critical to my career progression.
Mentorship has and continues to play an immensely critical role in my personal and professional development. I started Dojo because I believe in the power of mentorship to transform an individual professional and personal development forever and I have an insatiable desire to make mentorship more accessible.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Unfortunately, some of the early Dojo team members have moved on to other endeavors. I realised that founding team members need to have both passion for the Dojo mission and the specific skills required for the current stage of the business. I take responsibility for hiring folks who (while amazing) were not necessarily hitting both those points. Hiring an exceptional team is one of the most important aspects of being an early stage start-up founder. Early on in a start-up’s journey the decisions made regarding the founding team are profoundly important as the founding team lay the foundation for the company’s future trajectory.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My drive to press on during tough times is rooted in the challenging nature of my upbringing. Resilience and determination have been paramount in my journey from gang membership to the founding of Dojo. I often draw on the insights and lessons learned regarding resilience and determination when dealing with the challenging ebbs and flows of start-up life.
Dojo is built on the vision of wanting to offer a fresh perspective on what career development looks like today. We believe we can make a profound dent on the diversity, inclusion and equity challenges currently faced by people of colour seeking to progress in the workplace. Currently, we are focused on getting more ambitious people of colour in the door and up the ladder. Dojo’s alternative perspective of career development is centred on research associated with the important role that social capital plays in career development. Research shows that over 85% of all jobs are filled through networking. If you have a senior management referral you are 80x more likely to get the job. Essentially it is almost impossible to discover some positions, get a referral and land the job without the right connections. If you don’t have access to these connections you are left fighting for the remaining roles. I genuinely believe that by democratising access to mentorship across the globe Dojo will empower millions of people to pursue their career aspirations. This belief continues to drives me forward during tough times.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Grit and resilience has played a profound role in some of the wins we have experienced so far. I have experience working in product and operational roles at high growth tech startups and I have led smaller scale entrepreneurial endeavours before, but this was my first attempt at launching a tech startup. There was a lot of ‘figuring it out’ as a first time startup founder. Key learning areas include building a team, building a product users love, adoption strategy and fundraising. Navigating the funding landscape can often be tumultuous. Some of the questions we had to answer included: What is the best type of funding and funders for your business? Should we take venture capital money or not? Should we join an accelerator or incubator? Should we bootstrap? Should we raise angel money? Ultimately we decided to opt for a combination of angel and incubator funding. I secured a place on the renowned ZINC VC company builder programme. Learning from the successful innovation systems in computer and life sciences, Zinc combines insights from social sciences with top entrepreneurial talent and venture capital to build new, scalable, mission-led businesses. The learning and support from the ZINC programme have been paramount to our success thus far. After recently completing the ZINC VC M2 programme, we are now at 8 employees, executing on our go to market strategy and closing our first round of institutional funding.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made when first starting out was not getting proper office space sooner! I originally began working from a hotel lobby that doubles down as a kind of free co-working space. During the evenings there is usually a DJ or an event happening. On one particular evening I was on an important zoom call when RnB music began blasting out behind me!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are pursuing an exciting opportunity that is yet to be actioned upon. We are building an amazing product that users love and we have exceptional advisors and core team members that are excited and believe in the Dojo focus on reimaging career development, democratising access to mentorship and tackling diversity and inclusion. Our advisors are domain experts in the fields of technology, product design, branding and startup growth. They draw experiences from companies such as Google, LinkedIn, Mckinsey and Company. Our core team are leaders in the fields of software development, product management, growth marketing, community management, copywriting, storytelling, partnerships, UX/UI and mentorship programme management. Our team have held positions at firms such as HP, Wix, Adobe, Techstars, US House of Representatives, the Daily Mail and the Big Brothers and Boys Club of America. Interestingly enough many, if not all, of the founding team members joined the Dojo journey organically. For example, our Head of Partnerships and Sales was the former roommate of one of our angel investors. We went for a drink with no expectation of working together. What started as a casual drink in a British pub in downtown Oakland turned into a deep dive into Dojo’s partnerships and sales strategy. Following many more casual conversations it became clear that we had to work together.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s all about balance. I remember listening to Arianna Huffington’s episode of Reid Hoffman’s masters of scale podcast. During the episode Arianna stressed the importance of balance in the entrepreneurial journey. I agree with Arianna’s stance on balance. All things said being a startup founder is one of the most demanding professions in the world. Building a startup will likely require you to work longer hours and undertake more stress than many other professions. However, experiencing burn out is not a compulsory aspect of being a startup founder. I exercise, meditate daily, sleep sufficiently and ensure that when I am not working I am truly ‘signed out’ mentally. As is the nature of Dojo’s focus I lean a lot on my mentors and peers. Mentorship plays an incredible role in my day to day life and is critical to enabling me to thrive. My mentors and startup advisors provide much needed strategic advice and moral support during tough periods. I benefit a lot from peer mentorship from other startup founders. I cannot overstate how critical this reassurance and support has been to ensure that I can thrive and not burn out. Additionally, the laughs and banter shared with my mentors and peers during evenings when we are hanging out are a key component of my take on balance.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are several individuals who have played a critical role in my growth over the last few years. Paul Bojarski is one of those individuals. Paul is the CEO of London based SaaS company Sceenic, which provides solutions to power interactive viewing experiences. Sceenic works with some of the world’s most reputable media companies and is backed by leading media tech investors R/GA Ventures. Paul is a seasoned executive and entrepreneur. He has held management positions at large companies such MTV and Viacom. Before Sceenic he successfully ran a record label. I originally met Paul at the Google For Startups Co-working space in London about two years ago. We sat in front of each other whilst hot desking. Paul’s energy was contagious within minutes we broke into conversation about what he was building and his interesting upbringing. The same day he sent me over a few incubators links and offered to grab coffee. Paul has introduced me to investors, helped me navigating early hiring decisions, reviewed my pitch decks and coached me through accelerator applications. Paul has played a substantial role in my journey and I am immensely grateful for his continued support.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Despite the challenging nature of my upbringing, I have experienced some success and built a number of important relationships. Through these relationships I now have friends who work in fields such as venture capital, startups, law, medicine, dentistry and investment banking to name a few. Many of whom are in senior management positions in some of the most reputable institutions or industries in the world. As aforementioned, the social capital that stems from these relationships has played a critical role in my professional development thus far. I often and genuinely enjoy leveraging these relationships to help others progress in their career. I often make introductions where I believe value can be created between individuals in my network. For example, on one instance these actually led to someone landing an opportunity to work with the United Nations. I was extremely happy to hear of this. More importantly, I have passed on opportunities to several high paying and exciting opportunities to build Dojo. The reason being that I believe this is a huge opportunity to positive impact the world on a large scale.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
The importance of relationships — Thankfully, I naturally learned the importance of building lasting relationships and avoiding to seek instant gratification or rewards. However, I wish I knew this even earlier on.
The importance of work life balance — As aforementioned, obtaining the correct work-life balance is profoundly important to thriving and not burning out as an entrepreneur.
The importance of resilience — Thankfully, the experiences I have had thus far have required me to build resilience and continue pressing on when the desire to quit has been so profound.
The importance of building a world class team — I realised quite early on that, based on Dojo’s aspirations to reimagine career development and facilitate millions of mentorship relationships, I needed to build an exceptional team.
The importance of branding — understand your user and building a brand that speaks to them deeply is profoundly important. At Dojo we invest heavily in our brand because we are seeking to build an authentic movement. A brand that our users resonate with, believe in and trust.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement we are building at Dojo is one centered on offering an alternative perspective to career development that is rooted in the social capital, information and support obtained through mentorship relationships. We want to democratise access to mentorship and make a huge dent on the diversity, inclusion and equity challenges faced by ambitious people of colour seeking to progress in the world of work today.
Thank you for all of these great insights!