Uncharted Power Founder Jessica O. Matthews on Building The Anti-Silicon Valley Energy Startup.
“My name is Jessica O. Matthews, and I am the founder and CEO of Uncharted Power. I used to tell people I’m the perfect mashup between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beyoncé.”
Matthews’ opening line at Disney’s recent Demo Day, where startups that completed its accelerator present, carries a lot of truth.
Like Nye, she enjoys building, testing and inventing. While a junior in college, she co-created the Soccket, a soccer ball that can take the kinetic energy created from being tossed and kicked around and transform it into a renewable and portable energy source. To us this may seem like a fun gadget. But to those living in “light poverty,” with no electricity or constant outages, this technology can be a game-changer. Matthews went on to start Uncharted Play to expand her product line into energy-producing jump ropes and skateboards.
While she hasn’t hinted at any plans for pursuing a career in entertainment, her reference to Beyoncé probably has to do with being in a position to inspire young minority women to think big and break new ground. Instead of remaining a manufacturer of toy and sports products, her company is on a quest to create larger infrastructural solutions to provide cost-efficient energy for the developing world, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Caribbean. In 2016 she rebranded her startup as Uncharted Power and raised $7 million, the largest Series A ever raised by a black female founder.
She recently announced a new investment from Disney for an undisclosed amount. The new capital will enable Uncharted Power to provide not just products but systemwide solutions that address the generation, transmission and storage of power to underserved communities. While re-crafting her company’s mission statement seemed like a cinch, building the right team to fulfill that mission was not. In this interview, Matthews explains lessons she’s learned in scaling her startup.
What was the single biggest challenge you faced as a female CEO and founder?
In the first year, it’s just you. The team meeting is just you looking in the mirror. So as CEO my job is to set corporate strategy, product strategy and recruit. That was hard because I love the lab and I love to build things with my hands. But as we grew to Uncharted Power, I realized that was no longer the place for me.
And when you start to hire, you’re trying to find people who can do their job better than you. This itself is a full-time job. The 24 hours of the day will vanish like that.
When you add the layer of being a woman and being someone of color, that brings in a new set of issues. To quote the show Scandal, “You have to work twice as much to get half as far.” I had to figure out how to be more efficient with less resources.
Describe the moment you realized your company had the potential to become something much bigger than a singular product?
It was never about the Soccket. It was about solving a problem I knew existed every time I visited my family in Nigeria. The problem, I realized, was infrastructural. The power lines couldn’t be relied on to give us electricity. But energy and infrastructure are huge and scary problems to tackle. So while the soccer ball and linking play and power into one solution helped with public relations, that wasn’t good enough, because it didn’t bring a systemwide solution. I had to ask myself “What can we do to dive deeper?” That’s when I had an epiphany that changed the course of the company: We aren’t a soccer ball company, we are a tech company. We have intellectual property capable of building embedded renewable energy systems. Then I had to figure out how we can work with different manufacturers, governments, NGOs and companies to achieve this mission.
Why is it important for you to make sure Uncharted Power does not become the typical Silicon Valley startup?
When I look back to how we got here, it’s because we have a diverse team. Half our staff is women, which is rare for an energy company. About 30% to 40% of our team is Black or Latinx. And we moved our headquarters from downtown Manhattan to Harlem. We’re on 125th Street across from the Grant Projects.
When we were downtown, we were not surrounded by diversity. If Uncharted Power is serving a global market we cannot forget how diverse the world is—and in Harlem, you’ll be surrounded by different people from different worlds, from rabbis on 96th Street to barbers on 125th and teachers on 145th.
These people remind us how huge the world is and also very small. Because we all have the same basic needs, including access to clean energy.