By Nicole Capozziello
Published April 16, 2021
Industrial engineers find ways to optimize systems, improving things as diverse and complex as TSA, mail carrier routes, and manufacturing assembly lines. Or, with Oyinkansola Antwi’s recent project, our wellbeing.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, Antwi (BS ’11 industrial engineering) watched as New York was transformed, anxiety and uncertainty tinging every aspect of daily life in the city that never sleeps. Looking around her home city, she wondered, “What could the community use right now?” And then: “What could I use? And how could we put that out into the world?”
The answer was Drift - wellness + sleep, a wellness app for sleep and focus. The app, which was released in early August of 2020, is the first creation of Digital Park, a tech company Antwi started in collaboration with her husband Jeffery Antwi (BS ’11 Business Administration) early that year.
The app, like everything she’s done throughout her career, aims to give back, providing others with a new approach and more joy.
While launching a wellness app might not be what many people expect of an industrial engineer, Antwi, a senior operations analyst at NYC-based jewelry design house Gabriel & Co., has always been comfortable outside the realm of the ordinary. And industrial engineering has provided her with the perfect foundation.
When Antwi came to UB in 2007, she knew she wanted to draw on her skills to do something technical while not losing her creative side. She initially went into civil engineering, but found it just didn’t fit. So, one day, she stopped by the dean’s office hoping to talk to someone. There, she encountered another female engineering student, who listened to her struggles before suggesting she check out industrial engineering.
“That was the beginning of everything,” says Antwi. “I realized that industrial engineering was exactly what I’d been looking for – that concept of getting to take a systematic, mathematical approach to the creative world. You can apply the methodology of industrial engineering to any industry, basically carving out your own path.”
And for the last decade, that’s exactly what she’s done, though the path has sometimes been a lonely one. She knew that working in the creative arts, such as fashion, textiles and jewelry, wasn’t how most of her classmates planned to apply their IE training. Additionally, as a Nigerian and British international student, she found that her global thought process often differed from the profit-oriented American perspective. Not to mention, Antwi was often one of only a few women in her classes, and the only black woman.
However, as she started getting to know her professors, she found support. “The more I opened up to my professors about my vision for myself, the more they were able to help me see how I could apply the content I was learning in the way that I wanted to apply it. That openness is something I really loved and appreciated about UB at the time,” says Antwi, who was rewarded with mentors who saw her, helped her and cheered her on.
Her professors used their knowledge and expertise to connect her to creative internships that fit her interests; while her classmates went off to Kellogg or Ford, she did an internship for fashion designer Nicole Miller. On campus, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences supported her by creating opportunities for Antwi to learn through independent research, in areas such as on ergonomics and accessibility.
Moises Sudit, a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, was a constant cheerleader, giving her advice that she carries with her to this day: whatever you choose to do, make sure you’re championing it. “Everywhere I work, I go above and beyond,” she says. “I leave a stamp.”
Over the years, she’s left her mark, large and small, at an array of companies. “All of the industries I’ve worked in – fashion, textiles, jewelry – involve heavy labor,” explains Antwi. “The goal is not to replace workers but to optimize their day, ultimately making their lives easier.”
To each company, she’s brought the IE mindset of thinking differently, all the way down to the most minute of details. For creators, whether they be designers or artists, this optimization can allow them to streamline their process in ways they hadn’t thought possible. When working with a textile designer Liora Manné, whose rugs were often created as a single canvas and then broken into smaller pieces, Antwi realized that the most expensive part of her costing model was due to the orientation of a bird on it. By changing this slight detail, they were able to make the rug entirely using a vertical thread, which was cheaper than a horizontal thread and allowed the designer to keep the integrity of her art and materials.
What Antwi prizes most is how her work ultimately impacts people, who get joy and meaning from well-made, thoughtfully-designed objects, whether they be a rug, an outfit or an engagement ring.
Antwi’s husband Jeffery, who studied both textile sciences and industrial design for his masters work, shares her passion for creating things around the human experience. While they’d been talking about developing apps together since 2012 – “technology is the world” she says – they only started on Drift - wellness + sleep in March of 2020. Because of the reality of the pandemic in the greater world, and the stress they felt around them in their daily lives in Brooklyn, they pushed the app out quicker than they’d initially planned.
It comes at a one-time cost of $4.99 and is intended to be a streamlined experience – there’s no log-in, no hidden fees later on. “We want you to jump right in and forget about what’s happening,” says Antwi. In the months since the app’s release, Antwi has already gotten to see its impact. Press and promotion from Pop Sugar, NYU, and Afrotech has helped get the word out and users have praised Drift - wellness + sleep for its intentionality and accessibility. The app’s success also makes an impact on the greater community; a portion of the proceeds from each sale is donated to their partnering Black mental health organization, Africa's Health Matters, to continue supporting their services in the community and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole.
Next, Antwi and Digital Park are working on a marketplace app for chefs who’ve lost opportunities due to the pandemic. With this app, they want to foster connection, bringing chefs into people’s homes to cook for them for a week or host small, socially distant gatherings. “It’s been heartbreaking to see so many of our favorite restaurants closed,” says Antwi. “With this next project, we hope to help people celebrate the pivotal moments that are still happening, even though we’re all at home.”
Looking at what Digital Park has accomplished with Drift - wellness + sleep so far and all that lies ahead, Antwi says, “This is the beginning of so many products we want to put out into world. And I hope that the human experience part stays with us forever. I’ll make sure of it.”