The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Oladoyin Oladapo grew up in New York City surrounded by the sights and sounds of a myriad of cultures. In college, she studied sociology and political science, and during summers off, she volunteered at a Brooklyn elementary school helping kids with their homework.
It wasn’t long before she began to notice a gap in the literature. Of the books she read to children, there were more animals as main characters than there were children of color, she says.
Oladapo vowed to change that.
After college, Oladapo pursued several startups — a software social enterprise in Ghana and a fashion e-commerce platform. She founded Idunnu Studios, a company that creates multicultural children’s books to expose children, and especially girls, to a variety of cultures. Oladapo writes stories about extraordinary girls from across the globe, capturing the colorful language, foods, and traditions of their countries.
Her flagship collection, Girl to the World, for kids 12 and younger, consists of four chapter books, four picture books, and four activity books that celebrate diversity and girl power. Oladapo wants her publications to stand out. Each book first features an engaging story line — in Akua’s Masterpiece, a Ghanaian girl goes on adventures with a camera her parents gave her for doing well in school — and then she weaves in the cultural lessons.
Oladapo always envisioned doing more with her books — merchandising, films — and she came to Stanford GSB in 2018 to figure it out. In her latest project, with the help of two business school classmates, she’s developing two unpublished books she wrote on ancient African civilizations into an animated series.
You’ve said you never set out to be a writer. How exactly did Idunnu Studios come to be?
I approached this from an entrepreneurial lens. That said, I always knew I was a creative person, and I love exploring different avenues for expressing my creativity. As a teen, I was in my high school’s musicals and I wrote songs. At the same time, growing up in an immigrant community in New York allowed me to develop a love for all things multicultural. I started writing my first book as a passion project. I just jumped in and started writing. At the time, I was working on another startup idea. I was able to raise seed money to help small to medium businesses in Ghana digitize manual processes. We were creating something very valuable, but it wasn’t the most pressing need of small business owners in Ghana at that time. I realize that now. When that didn’t pan out, I worked at Snapchat for a while in content production, and then I left to launch my books.
Why are books like yours that celebrate other cultures so crucial for kids?
Representation is really important for children of all backgrounds. Kids need to grow up seeing children who look like them, in whatever media they’re consuming. But I wanted to do it differently and be more engaging than most books that teach about culture. A lot of them read like textbooks. For example, a book about a girl from India would focus exclusively on her being Indian. I wanted to write regular stories. Kids really just want stories with great adventures in them. In my books, the person just so happens to be Indian or Ghanaian. So, as you’re reading this adventure about this girl, you have no choice but to learn about India because it’s taking place in India.
Where do your book ideas come from, and what’s your writing process like?
In the first collection, I tried to focus on places I’ve either been to, or where I have extensive connections with people who lived there. My book about Shivani, who’s from India, was co-authored with a woman who lived in India. For the other books, I did a lot of interviews to understand what it was like to grow up in those places. I would write a good story, then go back and lace it with cultural information. I wanted to have great, colorful, and detailed illustrations, and I worked with some excellent freelance illustrators. For many kids, it’s the first time they’re seeing a sari or hearing about Diwali, so the colors are very important to informing their understanding.
Which of your characters do you most identify with?
Shivani from India. I always say that I accidentally wrote a book about me. We’re both into fashion, she’s running for class president, and she’s a straight-A student. Her whole narrative is about taking risks and not following a straight path. I didn’t do it intentionally.
What drew you to Stanford, and how has your time at the business school helped you figure out where to go from here?
I went to a liberal arts undergrad, and there was this strong emphasis on service and community and the way you learn rather than what you’re learning. Stanford felt the closest to that type of community. I was drawn to the collaborative culture, the anti-competitiveness in the class, and being in the innovation capital of the world. It’s a community where people help each other and are genuinely interested in what each other are doing. That culture has made it very easy for me to work on things I’m passionate about. When I started here, I had the vision of expanding my books into animation and toys. Now I’m working with a few other Stanford students on the idea. We’re planning to pitch my animated series to a studio, and are optimistic someone will pick it up.
The animated series sounds intriguing. Tell us more.
Contrary to how it is taught in most schools, black history did not begin with slavery or colonialism. There are so many rich empires that existed. I go back in time to explore the Mali Kingdom, ancient Egypt, and the Ashanti Kingdom, and to tell those untold histories. I want to show kids that black history dates back just as far as other civilizations. They’re fun, Magic School Bus-types of stories — a wacky history teacher sends a bunch of kids back in time on adventures. We’re hoping to sell at least a pilot to one of the major production companies, and are looking into streaming platforms. Alternatively, we might raise money to produce the entire series ourselves and then sell the full production. It’s been really exciting for me.
What kinds of stories have you been consuming lately?
I read a lot of memoirs. Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War is a memoir by Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee about the women who helped shape the Liberian Civil War independence movement. Also, Unbowed, by Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental activist, really spoke to me. I also just finished watching Klaus and Coco. I love watching kids’ movies. I say it’s for intel, but honestly, I really just enjoy them.