A relaxing evening for Tomi Adesogan involves switching on a podcast at her bedroom desk with an array of intricate tools and delicate hardware splayed out before her.
On any given night, it may be a set of flat or round-nose pliers and a metal piece she has shaped into a hoop. On another, it’s a pile of jump rings, clamps and tweezers. Or perhaps it’s a bottle of resin, a mysterious substance of plant or synthetic origin that hardens when poured into a mold.
But even Adesogan, a 21-year-old UF health education senior, couldn’t say exactly what that was.
“I couldn’t even tell you what resin really is,” she said with a laugh. “A lot of the time I’m like, ‘What is this chemistry?’”
Adesogan created the Instagram-based shop EarringsByTomi, a passion project she started just two months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Within days, she took on another mission to support racial justice causes.
In May 2020, a friend who knew about Adesogan’s love for elegant and quirky jewelry gifted her an earring-making kit.
“If you know me, you know how much I love a good pair of earrings,” she said in her first Instagram post. Her page is a collection of sculpted hoops laced with white pearls, sapphire spheres draping off of studs, coiled golden serpents and countless other distinct creations.
Adesogan originally started her brand to solve a personal dilemma — she created too many earrings for just herself to keep. That’s when the idea to sell her handiwork was born.
She originally maintained her digital earring shop as an outlet for her friends — her target audience — to support her.
But days later, “things got really bad in America,” Adesogan recalled.
The murder of George Floyd by police sent ripples of rage across the world, spurring a wave of activism the U.S. hadn’t seen in years.
“It didn’t feel right to go on without using my platform,” she said.
EarringsByTomi vowed to donate 100% of proceeds to Reclaim the Block, a Minneapolis-based grassroots organization dedicated to reallocating law enforcement funds throughout the community. Within days, followers from Minneapolis and Gainesville found her shop, and the orders came rushing in. In one week, her eclectic, handmade earrings, which sold for an average of $8, raised $900 for Reclaim the Block and 70 other bail funds and racial justice organizations. To this day, she has raised more than $1,000.
Community support was overwhelming. She said some customers would even send in $15 for $5 earrings just to donate more to the cause.
Grace Romo, a customer and model for the earrings, appreciated the integrity and beauty of both Adesogan’s jewelry and character. Adesogan even hand-delivered some earrings.
“As a person, she is sweet and soft-hearted and a little shy in the cutest way,” Romo said. “I intended on buying one pair of earrings, but I fell so in love I bought two more, and she was so nice about it.”
But fatigue eventually set in for Adesogan, a self-professed people pleaser.
“Taking classes, dealing with these traumatic life events, starting a new business — it was a lot at once,” Tomi said.
She abandoned her initial made-to-order method for a “first come, first serve” policy to create necessary boundaries for herself. Since then, she’s sold about 450 earrings.
Change and adaptation, however, have remained constants in her life.
Born in Wales to Nigerian parents, Adesogan moved to rural Gainesville with her family in the early 2000s.
“I saw this disconnect between my culture and Gainesville culture,” Adesogan said. “I often felt like I had to hide it.”
In grade school, she avoided bringing in homemade cultural meals to school after her peers claimed “it had a weird smell.” They also teased her by imitating African dialects and clicking sounds.
Microaggressions were also commonplace for Adesogan, but by college, she felt Gainesville’s diversity had grown. Her next challenge was one that plagues every 18-year-old at some point: finding a direction in life.
Now 21, Adesogan has changed her major four times during her three years at UF, ultimately deciding on health education.
“I knew I wanted a helping career,” she said. Through her major, she also found a deeper connection to her culture.
“My health disparities minor has helped me feel better about not having to think of myself as too American or not enough of a Nigerian,” she said. “It was a professor who once told me, ‘It doesn’t have to be an either/or; it can be an and,’ and that’s reframed my thinking.”
Adesogan aspires to address health disparities on a global scale, including in her ancestral country of Nigeria, where her own family has suffered due to difficulties with the healthcare system.
Adesogan’s instinctual urge to help others matches her already kind and thoughtful personality. Jessica, a friend since high school, can vouch for how attentive and loyal she is as a friend.
“Even my mom always says, ‘If you’re with Tomi, I know you're okay,’” Jessica said.
Jessica remains one of her biggest supporters and a day-one customer of the shop. Adesogan’s tight-knit circle of friends and family is another reason her shop flourished quickly and now has a cult following across the country.
Her sister, Tosin, a graduate psychology student at the University of Georgia, even sees her own friends sporting her sister’s designs during Zoom classes. “They’ll be like, ‘I’m rocking an EarringsByTomi look today,’” she said.
Adesogan plans to continue giving back to her community and gifting customers her handmade creations, and she’s still committed to donating a majority of her revenue to nonprofits.
In her most recent effort, she raised funds and awareness for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum in Atlanta after the spa shootings.
“My business has taught me that people are overwhelmingly good,” she said. “It’s made me think of the world a little differently. It’s given me more faith in humanity.”
Adesogan carries that thought with her each week as she sits at her desk, funneling funky fluids into molds and messaging strangers who feel more like old friends. With each twist of the pliers or screw of the clamp, it’s her desire to do good, reminding her it’s more than just earrings that are on the table.