Welcome to Season 3! I’m thrilled to be back on this journey with you, and am super excited to kick off with an episode about courage, confidence, innovation, science, social impact and entrepreneurship: a heart-to-heart with inventor and tour de force, Jessica O Matthews. This show was recorded in a meeting room at the UN Headquarters in New York, while we were attending the global Nexus Summit!
Jessica O Matthews is the Founder & CEO of Uncharted Power, an award-winning, full-service power and data infrastructure company. The Company develops technologies in energy generation, transmission and storage, and also engineers consumer products for Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. and various international governments. Uncharted Power has loads of patents and was founded by Jessica when she was 22 years old.
A dual citizen of Nigeria & the U.S., Jessica has a degree in Psychology and Economics from Harvard University, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and is listed on over 10 patents and patents pending—including her ﬁrst invention of the SOCCKET, an energy generating soccer ball, at the age of 19. In 2016, Jessica raised the second largest Series A ever raised by a black female founder in history, and was selected to ring the NASDAQ opening ceremony bell, representing all Forbes 30 Under 30 alumna. Her list of accolades is almost endless and it includes: Fortune’s Most Promising Women Entrepreneurs, Forbes 30 under 30 list, Inc Magazine 30 under 30, and Harvard University Scientist of the Year.
We talked about how Jessica’s upbringing led her to innovate in the field of power generation, despite having no formal scientific education. We discussed the implications of energy poverty and the challenges in overcoming it in a quick, scalable and sustainable manner. I was reminded that electrification is not just a developing market issue, as recent black-outs in New York and other cities have shown. We talked about the difficulties starting and scaling up a business, especially as a woman of color. We discussed leadership, diversity and even location: Jessica moved the company’s headquarters from Midtown Manhattan to (arguably less glamorous) Harlem to create a better environment for innovation! This is one woman to watch…
There were a few quotes I loved in this episode, but I’ll stick to two: “Just coz it wasn’t your plan, doesn’t mean it isn’t your destiny” (WOW!) and “I need to love who I am”. Jessica’s book recommendation is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
You can find Jessica on Instagram, @jessomatt and @unchartedpower.
Please do get in touch with the team at When Women Win and let us know what you think of this episode or the show in general. You can reach us via Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn. Thank you!
Read the Transcript
Rana Nawas: ( 00:00 )
Hi everyone. Welcome back to When Women Win. I am so excited to be starting season three
today and we’ve got an incredible lineup for you. We’ve listened to your feedback very carefully
and this season is curated to your needs and wants cause that’s the purpose of When Women
Win, to bring you stories from inspirational women and practical tips to help you in your personal
and professional lives. This season we’ll hear from corporate warriors and entrepreneurs who
have defied the odds, those who’ve failed, kept at it, and succeeded. We’ll hear from women
who have navigated career and family and while this is never easy, there are loads of tips on
how to manage it. We’ll also hear from some of the world’s leading academics on important life
skills like negotiations and parenting and we’ll have a few elite athletes as well this season for
lessons and resilience and leadership. I tell you, recording this season has been such a joy, so
to kick off season three we have a lady who blew me away at a conference I recently attended.
It was the Global Nexus Summit in New York and Jessica Matthews was a keynote speaker at
the opening session. She is a modern day Thomas Edison. Seriously, if you can imagine a
young black female Edison, it would be her. Jessica is an entrepreneur and an award winning
boss lady and we talked about her journey in the energy industry, her inventions, her struggles,
and her learnings. Jessica and I both come from countries where you don’t take electricity for
granted. Power is a gift that many people on earth don’t have. In fact, 1.2 billion people on earth
don’t have, and that’s a lot of people. One of the most poignant memories of my life was when I
visited Wagga dugu in Burkina Faso. It must’ve been around 2008. I saw this young man maybe
in his early twenties and he was sitting on the pavement under a street lamp reading. It took me
a few seconds to realize what was going on, that he probably didn’t have electricity at home,
and so to continue his studying after dark, sitting under a streetlamp was his only option. That
image has stuck with me. I also know from spending a lifetime of summers in Lebanon, the
limiting effects that power cuts and horrible diesel generators have on people’s everyday lives.
So all this is to say that reliable, ubiquitous power is really important to me personally and to any
economy. Obviously the cleaner, the better. Back to why I had to bring Jessica on the show for
you. It’s cause she’s already started to change the world. At the age of 19 she invented the
SOCCKET ball, an energy generating soccer ball so that kids could take the ball home, kick it
around, and then use it to read after dark. She limited the storage capacity of the ball to two
hours so that parents wouldn’t force their kids to play longer. How thoughtful is that? A few
years later when she visited a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, Jessica noticed that while the
boys were out there playing with this ball, the girls were nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately,
keeping girls indoors so that they don’t arouse the boys is a thing. I know it’s disgusting, but let’s
try to stay on topic. So Jessica wanted to create a product to empower the girls too. She created
a jump rope pulse that, again, captures and stores kinetic energy for later use as electricity.
Jessica has been awarded far too many accolades to list here. Forbes, Fortune, Oprah, Obama,
Newsweek. I’ll just include them in the show notes on the website, but the one achievement I
will mention here is that in 2016 Jessica raised the second largest series A ever raised by a
black female founder. All right, a bit of blurb, tiny bit. Jessica O. Matthews is the founder and
CEO of Unchartered Power, an award-winning full service power and data infrastructure
company developing technologies in energy generation, transmission, and storage, the
company engineers consumer products for Fortune 500 companies in the US and various
international governments. The company has loads of patents and was founded by Jessica
when she was 22 years old. By the way, I should mention that while she’s a scientist and
inventor today, Jessica did not get a formal education in the field. She has a degree in
psychology and economics and an MBA, both from Harvard. This episode was recorded at the
United Nations headquarters building during a conference. So there’s a little background noise
from time to time. Right. Enough said. Let’s get into it. Jessica, it is wonderful to have you on
When Women Win. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Jessica Matthews: ( 05:00 )
Of course. I’m so excited to be here.
Rana Nawas: ( 05:02 )
First ever at the UN Headquarters.
Jessica Matthews: ( 05:06 )
I know, look how that worked out.
Rana Nawas: ( 05:07 )
First ever When Women Win episode live from the UN. Pretty cool.
Jessica Matthews: ( 05:11 )
Rana Nawas: ( 05:12 )
Fair enough. All right.
Jessica Matthews: ( 05:17 )
Look, we’re here. Trust us that that’s where we are.
Rana Nawas: ( 05:19 )
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Hi, we’ve got video, video proof. Soccer, power, energy.
Jessica Matthews: ( 05:28 )
Rana Nawas: ( 05:28 )
Invention. Not fields that women play in an awful lot.
Jessica Matthews: ( 05:32 )
Or like not words that people think are like, come together, right? Yeah.
Rana Nawas: ( 05:37 )
Right. But you play in all of them.
Jessica Matthews: ( 05:39 )
Rana Nawas: ( 05:40 )
Could you tell us a bit about your upbringing and how it led to your invention?
Jessica Matthews: ( 05:46 )
You know, I like to tell people that Nigerian moms are like tiger moms, just louder. So just, you
know, if you hear some like loud, distinct shouting, it’s like, oh, it’s probably some Nigerian
moms saying, oh yeah, I love you. You know, like in a very like aggressive way. Like it’s like,
just like aggressive, intentional love though. Right? And I think that that’s, you know, I was very
lucky to have that be my upbringing. I’m a dual citizen of Nigeria and the United States and
when I wasn’t in Nigeria, I was growing up in a place called Poughkeepsie, New York, 90
minutes out of the city but it’s very few people know how to spell it to say the least of where it is
and it’s, especially within the last couple of years, it’s the kind of place where, you know, people
are kind of struggling too. Where like main street has died and they’re trying to revive it and so
the juxtaposition was really interesting because I would grow up, you know, like, you know,
during the school year in this place where I couldn’t really see what my next step would be. But
I, you know, but I still had my parents telling me, you know, you can be what you, what you want
to be. If you want to be in charge, if you want to really make an impact, it’s going to have to be
something that you create something, that you invent, something that you push and I at the very
least could see that if I wanted to do anything that was interesting, it would have to be like my
thing because I was like, what. You’d kind of sit there with your own devices in Poughkeepsie,
you know, and then when we would go over the summer to Nigeria, where the majority of my
family lived, it was almost like, you know, like observation as the mother, you know, of
inventions. Where you pull your ideas from and so I was exposed to real things that were
affecting me and my family there in particular, it was an infrastructural issue around access to
energy and so I had both kind of like the willingness to create the world around me and the
reason to kind of create the world around me, but what I didn’t have at the time was necessarily
the confidence to do it in the way that I knew it had to happen because infrastructure is scary
and it definitely was something I knew immediately was an infrastructural issue. Right? Like I
remember when I was 17 and I was in Nigeria for my aunt’s wedding and as expected, we lost
power, cause you, you know, and we’re talking about a world where you’re going to lose power
multiple times a day. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the village or, you know, in the bustling
city of Lagos and it’s a world where you have to kind of get used to this idea that when the sun
goes down, that could be the end of your day. So it’s a psychological issue as well. You just
have to kind of plan to not plan, plan to not grow.
Rana Nawas: ( 08:38 )
So I’m half-Lebanese and so we have these, the same power issues and everyone has a diesel
Jessica Matthews: ( 08:42 )
Everyone has a diesel generator.
Rana Nawas: ( 08:43 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 08:43 )
And that’s exactly what we did. So we lost power as expected and they brought in a diesel
generator and, you know, the fumes are pretty bad. You’re supposed to keep them outside but
because the pastor was particularly interested in everyone hearing his sermon, he was like
close the windows, everything, like, you know, everything like just at least for their moment and I
remember the fumes were so bad I started to feel nauseous and I started to complain to my
cousins who were in their twenties at the time and it was this actual statement that they made
that stuck with me. They said, don’t worry, you’ll get used to it and I think at first I was just like,
that’s not, obviously this isn’t the first time we brought in a diesel generator or used a kerosene
lamp. It’s not about me getting used to it. It’s about the fact that like, I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m
dying and that’s when it hit me though I was like, okay, one, you’re telling a 17 year old girl to
get used to dying and I’m still naive enough again, that that doesn’t seem right but then I think
what’s even more unfortunate is that you as a black man but in Nigeria you’re just a man. You
should see the whole world as your oyster. You should be thinking about all these innovations
that could change the world, that could create the world that you want and what you’re telling
me is that the way you solve problems is by pretending like there is no problem. You know, the
way you saw problems is essentially to get used to them, which means they’re getting used to
dying, right? And, and that stuck with me. That hit me. I remember going back to Poughkeepsie
and it stayed with me. It stayed with me. It stayed with me and I don’t, at the time I was already
very much into tinkering in science. Like I idolize Bill Nye the Science Guy. I like to tell people I
want to be the love child of Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beyonce because why not? Like that
just seems perfect.
Rana Nawas: ( 10:32 )
So 163 countries listening, who’s Bill Nye the Science Guy?
Jessica Matthews: ( 10:36 )
Oh. Bill Nye the Science Guy it was just like this, he’s just like the coolest. I want to meet him so
bad. Actually this is Bill Nye the Science Guy. You are everything. You are a scientist that made
science cool and accessible to kids and I grew up watching you and you changed my life and I
would really love to meet you. Thanks, Jess. So please, please, like just.
Rana Nawas: ( 11:04 )
If you’re listening to When Women Win, Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Jessica Matthews: ( 11:10 )
Please, Bill Nye the Science Guy, I’m trying not to sing your theme song, but that’s how much
it’s in my soul. He was just this guy who was like made, brought science into our homes. So he
brought science out of the lab into our homes and made you think about the world around you
as a platform to create and as we all know, Beyonce is just the baddest bitch around, right?
She’s the hardest working woman. She’s the hardest working person. Point blank period. I don’t
know if I’m an artist necessarily, but I do think I have a good understanding of what’s beautiful
and I’ve seen so many beautiful things in my life and something that always stuck with me was
the beautiful game, right? Soccer and my favorite way it’s played, it’s not the big fancy, you
know, like professional way. It’s that kind of local amateur game that may or may not be played
with a real soccer ball. But the passion and the fervor and the excitement, and I’m not even
personally that good at soccer. Right? But there was just something about that that was so
inspiring and I thought, okay, well I don’t also don’t know if I’m a scientist. At the time I made the
mistake of thinking that you had to have a certain type of degree to be a scientist or a certain
type of experience when actually if you look at the definition of science it means the study of life
and so if you’re living, you’re halfway there. But again, at the same time, I said, well, at least I
have my perspective and I have, you know, Google or something I can figure things out and so I
thought back again to this problem and, you know, my parents again were always like, listen, if
you want it, create it still. If you want it, build it. Do more, do more. Like that’s the Nigerian mom,
do more, go and be helpful, be productive.
Rana Nawas: ( 12:49 )
You have to say it like a Nigerian mom.
Jessica Matthews: ( 12:51 )
Do your work. Build. Like, and it would be that kind of thing. Like it would be like, all right, like I
remember my mom would watch Oprah and see some kid like invented like, you know, or a
wrote a book or built a video game and she would like, come with a bunch of notepads, throw
them right in front of like me and my sister and be like, oh yeah, are you going to build a video
game too? And we’d be like, okay and we’d just be like, well, okay, what’s a wire frame? Let’s
see. Like, and we would just get into it cause we’d be like, all right, like even to this day,
everything we’ve done, my mom is still like it would be so nice if you also went to law school. I’m
like, Mom. I went to Harvard, I went to Harvard business school, I’ve built this company. You go
to law school, you, can we but again, what they instilled in us was this idea of never being
satisfied, always reaching, always going. So at the very least, even though I thought
infrastructure was scary, right? I knew it was an infrastructure issue. In Nigeria, people are
paying more per kilowatt hour than they do here in the United States but they don’t have the
infrastructure to pay into. So they’re paying for diesel. They’re paying for kerosene and but I
thought that was scary, but I knew I wanted to create something. Let me at least try and so I
thought, what if we could bridge the gap between what’s working and what’s not working? And
we could create something that would be kind of an immediate short term solution to at least
replacing kerosene lamps, perhaps, right? But I think more importantly what I want to create
was something that would be like a psychological innovation, something that would inspire
people like my cousins to see that there could be a totally different way that we get power and
something in a, do it in a way that was engaging and playful enough that if enough people saw
this, then maybe somebody, I didn’t think it would be me, somebody would come up with a way
to change the infrastructural issue.
Rana Nawas: ( 14:45 )
How old were you?
Jessica Matthews: ( 14:46 )
I was 19. I was 19 when the invention for the soccer ball happened and I think what was crazy is
that I created the Soccket ball so that it would inspire a world of people and I don’t think that the
ball has inspired anyone more than me. Like a lot of people were very excited and they kind of
would say things like, oh, well, and you can put it in the, you know, if you can harness energy
from this, does that mean you can harness energy from that and this I’d be like, yes, yes, of
course. Yada, yada, kinetic energy. But what ended up happening is that I saw that you can
kind of show people what’s going on, but sometimes you really have to do it and make it real
and so there were little things that started to happen and I just kind of pushed and it went from a
soccer ball to, you know, an energy generating jump rope. Actually, a good story behind that.
We were working in a refugee camp on, at the border of Jordan and Syria in like 2012, 2013.
Rana Nawas: ( 15:48 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 15:48 )
Yeah. That sounds familiar. I think so. Yeah and it was like save the children and we, you know,
we’re getting the lay of the land and we have a cold STEM curriculum and a whole way that you,
you know, you’ve delivered these, you don’t just drop the product, you have to really make it an
educational situation and make sure that there’s some very clear understanding of how you’re
distributing the product at the time and I remember looking around and noticing that there were
only very young girls and then I was like, where are the girls, where are the girls? And I’m like, I
know like soccer, yes, a lot of boys play but girls play it too, where are they? And then someone
pulled me aside and said, oh well, you know, life in the refugee camp is, it’s very tense and yet
there’s also nothing to do and so we had to be very careful of how people kind of cathartically
get their pain out and we found that the girls, once they hit the age of 12, they’re just too
tempting to the boys and so we’re, we keep the girls inside. They’re not allowed to play outside
and my silly self, like, you know, at first I was just like, okay, so should we keep the boys inside?
I feel like the boys should be inside, you know, sounds like they’re the ones that should be
inside and then they were like, this is the border Jordan and Syria. What are you actually even
saying? And I was like, okay, cool. And so I went back, you know, to my team and I said, we
have to create something that you can play with inside that generates let’s just, let’s make it
generate more energy. Like let’s make it even more efficient and so that’s when our second
product came. You know, at first it was just this idea of embedding the system into a soccer ball
and then we were able to create an energy generating jump rope called the Pulse. That 15
minutes of jumping can give you, you know, an hour of light because we wanted to create
something for people who were being pushed aside, you know, and that ended up kind of being
this, this pattern of, you know, it wasn’t necessarily this plan to build an infrastructure company,
but first it was just bridging the gap and creating something that gave people dignity while also
starting to bring them in and address the problem.
Rana Nawas: ( 17:57 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 17:57 )
The Soccket Ball.
Rana Nawas: ( 17:58 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 17:59 )
And then looking at how we can, you know, serve the ignored and create something with the
jump rope and by then, you know.
Rana Nawas: ( 18:07 )
So how far in were you then?
Jessica Matthews: ( 18:09 )
So by then I was like maybe 23. Right? So, you know, 19 I started to prototype it, go to different
places, understand what supply chain is and how hard it is, launch the company at the age of
22, and then about two years in that happened and a couple of things happened from there. I
was in business school at the same time while I was running the company. So I started to think
more about not just how do you have cool ideas, but how do you scale these things? And I think
it was wild because like we, since we were already in this space, we kept on showing people,
okay, well maybe this jump rope will also inspire people, but they weren’t pushing fast enough.
So then we went and said, okay, well why don’t we work with different corporations to distribute
this product, have them pay for the product as part of their corporate social responsibility,
generate like, you know, revenue that we can apply to build an art, you know, basically apply for
R and D to build a platform so that people can see how this technology can go into everything
that moves and so we did that because again, as a woman and as a woman of color, I had no
idea how to raise money. So I thought, let me maybe make money first, right?
Rana Nawas: ( 19:29 )
So I really want to talk about this, about the challenges of scaling. Fundraising is the first one.
So how did you go about that?
Jessica Matthews: ( 19:37 )
So the first thing for me was just, I didn’t feel like it applied to me because I felt like all the
people who had successfully raised money were living in Silicon Valley, were straight white
Rana Nawas: ( 19:50 )
And the data shows you’re right.
Jessica Matthews: ( 19:52 )
Yeah and the data shows, yeah exactly. Like, you know, like what 0.2% of all, you know,
venture funds go towards black women or something like that. You know, the average amount
that a black woman can raise is $34,000.
Rana Nawas: ( 20:05 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 20:06 )
You know, so that’s, so it didn’t feel like it applied to me and I didn’t have anyone I could go to,
like my parents started, you know, businesses, they had gotten loans from banks. It was a very
different way when you think about if you want to scale a very unique and new idea and so what
I ended up doing was taking the idea for, you know, the Soccket and the Pulse, which is the
energy generating jump rope and showing that to different oil and gas companies in Nigeria, in
Latin America, and said, hey, you should give us money and use this as your corporate social
responsibility and ended up raising, well, generating over $6 million in revenue and then took
the profits from that and then went and started to do the R and D to build the platform and then
only then had the guts to then go to Silicon Valley and say, you should really back us and it’s
insane cause it’s like, it’s an exact example of having to do three times, if not 10 times as much
to get a 10th as far, right? But that’s what we did and, you know, at the time it was, it’s a
catch-22 because it was the largest series A ever raised by a black woman, but it was the
average amount that year raised by the average entrepreneur, AKA the average straight white
Rana Nawas: ( 21:24 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 21:25 )
And so we had to work so hard just to be average and so.
Rana Nawas: ( 21:31 )
How much was that?
Jessica Matthews: ( 21:32 )
That was $7 million.
Rana Nawas: ( 21:33 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 21:34 )
7 million. Yeah. Not a lot when you’re thinking in the grand scheme of hardware and developing
things for infrastructure.
Rana Nawas: ( 21:42 )
And so that went to mostly.
Jessica Matthews: ( 21:42 )
R and D and building. So with that we were able to then say, okay, it looks like people are
excited about what we’re suggesting here with this new way of thinking about power. But they’re
not, you know, they’re not running with this and maybe we need to build a bit more. We’ll put
more money into R and D to now show people how you can harness energy from anything that
moves and I think what we also realized is that we would have to rethink the way energy
transmission and energy storage are thought about as well.
Rana Nawas: ( 22:16 )
So, which leads me to a question I meant to ask earlier, actually, if we’re talking about
challenges with energy in places like Nigeria, what are the specific challenges? Is it generation?
Is it distribution? Is it storage?
Jessica Matthews: ( 22:29 )
That’s a really, really good question. So what is, you know, what is the big energy problem,
right? It’s a problem that masquerades the socioeconomic, but it’s not, like I said, people are
actually paying more per kilowatt hour in places like Nigeria than they are here in the United
States or in other more, you know, developed regions. It’s ultimately an infrastructural issue.
When we think about power infrastructure today, you have these huge like upfront costs, right?
It can cost $100 million to build a power plant and then how many millions more to build the
transmission lines to get there and these massive centralized power plants are generating so
much power that you can’t even store it on the other end and so now when you think about
developing this infrastructure overseas, you know, or rather, you know, in like developing
countries like Nigeria, you have to say like it’s going to be a little bit harder just given the kind of
different like political issues and you know like currency risk or etcetera to even get someone to
say, yes, I’m happy to put up $100 million for a power plant. If you somehow can find someone
who’s saying yes, they’ll do that. Then you have the issue of long lead development timelines,
right? It can take seven to 10 years to actually turn on that power plant. Now you have that
timeframe risk on the investment. So again, making people say, hmm, I don’t know if I actually
want to invest in developing this infrastructure and then when you actually look at the way these
infrastructures are actually built, we found that the third kind of big issue was like siloed delivery
of services that the people who were financing this power projects and thinking about the, you
know, the development of this infrastructure, they were just focused on power. Even though the
community would need more than power. They would need power, they would need internet,
they would need lots of different things and so when you have this siloed delivery of services,
when people think about investing in that overall community, they’re thinking, all right, well if I
have to wait a decade and $100 million just for power, but then no one’s even gonna live here or
do anything meaningful to be like a credit worthy customer until they get internet, which is gonna
take X amount of more time till they get these, all these other different services. People just kind
of run away. It’s too, the hurdle is too much. It’s too big and so we’re like, okay, you know, power
infrastructures should be characterized by systems that are more modular so that you don’t
have to have this massive big kind of generation site with these long miles of transmission lines.
You can have these modulars, smaller micro distributed generation sites.
Rana Nawas: ( 24:58 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 24:59 )
The mini grids that are more modularly interconnected though, because you can’t just have a
sustainable system if it’s just a small generation site. You still need to interconnect them so that
you have that kind of general safety of the network and then if you have those smaller sites that
it can be interconnected, you can reduce the long lead development timelines. So if you have a
more decentralized way of thinking about developing, again, these small sites that are
interconnected versus this one massive site, you can get them up and running within months
instead of years and then if you design the technology so that we’re not only thinking about
power, but everything that power enables, connectivity, data, and all of that, not only are you
now making it a place that’s easier for people to live in this new industrial age immediately,
you’re also able to reduce the payback period on that infrastructure so that it’s easier to invest in
and so we said we need to create a technology that matches that, that’s modular, that’s
decentralized, that can do more than just power, so that it’s easier to invest in and we looked
and said, okay, well what do we have in terms of our, in our original IP portfolio. We realized
that even just starting from the Soccket, we had gotten very good at building embedded
environments, safe spaces for technology to go inside of things that are already in our world
around us, are already ubiquitous around us. So whether it’s a soccer ball or jump rope or just
the ground that we walk on and drive on, we had built a very unique skillset and embedding
those systems in the ground in a way that was modular and decentralized and upgradeable.
Rana Nawas: ( 26:37 )
So you’re saying that your product, your technology, you can put it in sort of floor panels, panel
by panel, and then as somebody walks on it.
Jessica Matthews: ( 26:46 )
So you can generate the energy, but you could also transmit and store it because we have to
think about all three and so as we started to go deeper, we said, well, okay, let’s, yes, we should
be generating energy from people driving, people walking, of course, and we spent and we
started to build those things out and it was fun. We were building energy generating, you know,
road panels, energy generating speed bumps. We realized that the issue, yes generation was
part of it, but the primary issue if you think about the triangle of the energy technology
ecosystem, there’s generation where you get the power from, there’s transmission, how you
send the power, and then there’s storage. Kinetic energy is very exciting from a generation
perspective where there’s a lot of traffic and if there’s not a lot of traffic, solar’s really exciting.
Hydro is really exciting. Wind’s really exciting. There are lots of innovations actually happening
in renewable generation. They’ve been happening. Even on the storage side, there’ve been lots
of new innovations and ways of thinking about things and so we were coming into this market
and we were saying like, you know, kind of looking around, looking at hey solar guys, hey hydro,
we’re here too and we were looking around like, wait a minute, what’s up? Something’s not
working here. This is not an issue about generation, is it? Right? Like yes, there should be
smaller sites, not these big centralized power plants, but whether it’s solar, whether it’s hydro,
whether it’s kinetic, it doesn’t really matter. Then we look into the storage side. We’re like, huh,
yeah there’s some cool ways to do this, but what actually is the issue? And we realized that the
issue was that the thing that no one had changed over the last 150 years from the time that it
was invented by Nikolai Tesla was power transmission and distribution. You’re trying to force
with these new generation technologies and these new storage technologies into an archaic
transmission system, right? So like an analogy I always tell people, I don’t care how nice of a
car you buy, how sustainable it is, how efficient it is, if you are going to drive that car on a road
that hasn’t been updated in 150 years, how long do you think that car is going to last? How far
do you think it’s going to go? And I don’t care how nice of a garage you buy for that car to store
that power. The point of that car is not to sit in that garage, it’s to drive, it’s to go, and so no
matter how efficient we work to make our energy generating panels, when we tried to look at
interconnecting them into the existing grid, the efficiency was such a trash fire. It was such a
disaster that we were like, we can’t do this and then we looked and said solar, how are you
doing this? And they’re like, yeah, well you know, domestic or like we just, we just don’t,
basically we just have people have their solar panels on their homes and then they go into
batteries and it’s like, well that’s not sustainable. You meet the network effects, right? You need
to be able to share energy and send energy where it needs to be, when it needs to be there.
That’s how you have a full system that is renewably powered and we’re like, yeah, but how?
When we do our above ground transmission lines, so not resilient.
Rana Nawas: ( 29:44 )
It just doesn’t get permission.
Jessica Matthews: ( 29:45 )
You don’t even get permission. We tried to do below ground transmission, it’s too expensive. So
we ended up creating something called the uncharted system and essentially on the
transmission side, on the hardware side, it’s a panel that sits kind of within the ground, so it’s not
above ground, it’s not trenched below, that allows you to transmit data and energy in real time,
in a manner that is resilient, secure, durable, and also affordable, which is really key and so
essentially what we did was build a hardware and software platform that allows us to transform
the ground that we walk on and the ground that we drive on into a decentralized power plant.
Rana Nawas: ( 30:30 )
Okay. Wow. Is this being used anywhere?
Jessica Matthews: ( 30:34 )
The Soccket Ball and the jump rope, we can make those, we can push them out into the world.
This is a little different because we’re talking about roads and sidewalks and where people are
and with heavy machinery. So what we had to start doing, actually, was getting a bunch of
external laboratory testing, not just what we make in our own lab and then a bunch of
certifications from the government. It’s a long road for infrastructure because it’s a hard road. It’s
a scary road and we want to make sure we’re doing it the right way, but over the next year we’re
going to be announcing some places where the product, where the technology is actually up
and running and enabling a 100% renewable community to function and flourish.
Rana Nawas: ( 31:12 )
Wow. I love that we’re 33 minutes and two questions in. All right, so let’s try to get through. I’d
love to learn to hear more about your personal stories. So what are some lessons that you’ve
learned through this journey of invention, startup, scale up? Some lessons that have
transformed the way you lead.
Jessica Matthews: ( 31:33 )
I like to tell people that just because it’s not your plan doesn’t mean it’s not your destiny.
Rana Nawas: ( 31:38 )
I love that.
Jessica Matthews: ( 31:38 )
Because for me, coming into this, if you actually look at who I am, none of this actually makes
sense, right? So I’m the CEO of an award winning power and data infrastructure technology
company. However, I’m also a woman. I’m a woman of color. I don’t live in Silicon Valley. I live
in Harlem. I’m, you know, I’m Nigerian, where, if anything I should just have more degrees more
than anything else, right? And, you know, it’s not, even my team, you know, we are, we look like
the colors of Benetton ad like we’re incredibly diverse. We have women technologists, you
know, and women on the leadership team. Like, so this doesn’t seem to match up when you
look at everything that people have told us, you know, should be the kind of paradigm for this
kind of change and yet when I, you know, when I think back now, I realize that all of those things
were actually our competitive advantage to bring us to where we are, right? It kind of brought
me to the next thing that I start realize in running this company, I would always, each step we
would make, each time we would hit a milestone, I would immediately freeze and say, okay,
now I need to hire all these brilliant people because there’s no way that I will know what the hell
I’m doing to get this done. I have to hire all these fancy people and each time I would try to do
that, I would realize that there’s nothing like passion and a willingness to learn and somehow I
would still end up being the person that was, I guess, the right person to lead.
Rana Nawas: ( 33:12 )
So you’d hire someone and then it wouldn’t work out.
Jessica Matthews: ( 33:13 )
I’d hire someone thinking they knew all these different things and it wouldn’t work out and I
realized that, you know, I have to stop telling myself that I’m not the one, you know, that I’m not
the right person to lead. This is getting too big. This is getting too scary. I’m sure there’s
someone who knows this more than I do. It’s not even about that. Like, I guess what I didn’t
realize is that this is not about whether or not I’m the best person to do it. It’s about whether or
not I’m the worst and why not and like I would tell people like, you know, it’s so inspiring when
you see that like, I’ll frame it this way. They say that the, you know, department of labor says
that most likely a woman will look at a job description and she will not apply for that job unless
she hits nine out of the 10 of the qualifications that they’ve asked for. They ran the same study
with men and if a man, an average, you know, straight white man hits three out of the 10
qualifications, he’ll apply.
Rana Nawas: ( 34:11 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 34:12 )
So what does that tell you? It tells you that one, a lot of men are applying for jobs that they have
no damn business applying for.
Rana Nawas: ( 34:18 )
We know that.
Jessica Matthews: ( 34:19 )
Right, right, right. But also there’s a chance that these men are also getting into situations where
they have the opportunity of their dreams and they surprise themselves and they surprise
everyone around them and women, we’re not getting that. We only do the things that we know
we can do, that we studied and while we’re sitting there wondering if we’re the best person for
the job, someone else is running for president and becoming president. You know and I said it
earlier, like I was not inspired when Barack Obama became president cause he’s a brilliant man.
He was one of the best for the job and I was like, if some people would ask me, Jessica, would
you ever become President and I was like, me? No, like God, no. That looks like that’s super
hard. Like there are better people for that job and then when our current president became
president, I was like, man, that’s inspiring. I was like, Donald Trump is the most inspiring man. I
was like this fool? And then after that I was like, okay.
Rana Nawas: ( 35:20 )
I can do anything.
Jessica Matthews: ( 35:22 )
I may not be the best person to be president, but I for damn sure I’m not the worst person to be
president and we need to start to get out of our comfort zone and realize that it’s not just about
what you’ve done in your experience, sometimes you just have to take your shot and we as
women are always thinking that everything has to be so planned out for and rightfully so. Like
we’re not usually given second chances, but a lot of what’s going to drive you in situations of
uncertainty and in worlds where you are literally charting the course, no one can tell you what’s
right and what’s wrong. It’s not going to be necessarily your experience or some knowledge you
think you have. It’s going to be your heart. It’s going to be your willingness to get back up each
day. You know? And for me, I get up each day after doing this now in some form for 13 years
because yes, it’s a really big, scary, hard problem, but it’s a problem that’s affecting my family
still today and I cannot be done until I’ve solved this problem for them and a lot of women can
relate to having that be the motivation for why they get up in the morning.
Rana Nawas: ( 36:36 )
Yeah and so being a woman, how has that helped you run the business? Or has it? Maybe not.
Jessica Matthews: ( 36:42 )
You know, it’s, I definitely feel like, so the, on the other side I don’t want to speak in total norms.
Everyone, you know, has different characteristics, but women tend to be thoughtful and so that
thoughtfulness I think plays very well when you’re building dynamic, tricky, complicated systems
because you have to keep multiple stakeholders in mind and women are good at that. You
know, like I have to think about, okay, how are the utility companies going to think about this?
How are the government’s going to think about this? How’s the person, you know, living in front
of this infrastructure foing to think about this? How is a person walking on this infrastructure
going to think about this? Now even going back to like the Soccket Ball, we chose to cap the
size of the battery going in the ball because we immediately thought, well, we want to make
sure that it’s only used for play and that kids aren’t forced to play longer than they want to
because people need more power.
Rana Nawas: ( 37:40 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 37:40 )
Yeah. So I’m like, okay, well if we cap this, that means that they’re going to have to use the
power before they can keep playing to generate more and so there’s ways to design technology
thoughtfully to bring the best out of people, right? Or to bring the worst out of people and I find
that, you know, as a woman, we often have to work things out to just keep the family together
and to keep the family moving forward and it’s almost like the equivalent of chopping up the
broccoli and putting it into the pasta sauce so your kids doesn’t, you know, doesn’t know that he
or she is eating vegetables. You know, that’s very thoughtful. You know, I think my dad would’ve
just been like, don’t eat if you don’t want to eat and just walked away. You know what I mean?
And so that dynamic, you know, is something that I lean into, you know, and I do believe it
makes me a better leader.
Rana Nawas: ( 38:24 )
How diverse is your team?
Jessica Matthews: ( 38:27 )
Very, very diverse and by diversity, not just like, it’s not like a team full of black women, that
wouldn’t be diverse. Right? We have people hailing from Europe, Latin America, central
America, India, you know, some parts of Southeast Asia, men, women, people who are
non-binary, LGBTQ. Everyone.
Rana Nawas: ( 38:55 )
And have you realized any tangible benefits from having a diverse team? Tangible, technologicy
wise, business wise?
Jessica Matthews: ( 39:03 )
To me, a lot of what we’ve created we would not have created if we weren’t diverse and by
diversity, again, it’s not even just the team within, it’s also where we are. When we raised our
series A, we actually moved up to Harlem because I felt that it was very important that we were
in a microcosm of the world. I wanted to make sure that when members of my team got off the
subway and walk to work, they weren’t thinking about their own personal problems, which can
be very siloed for, you know, especially within a certain socioeconomic class. But they were kind
of seeing the world and that is a, that’s easier to ignore downtown if I’m being honest.
Rana Nawas: ( 39:45 )
So you moved from downtown on purpose?
Jessica Matthews: ( 39:47 )
Yes. On purpose up to Harlem.
Rana Nawas: ( 39:49 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 39:49 )
Up to Harlem and there were some, you know, it was tough. We even had some investors say,
why are you doing this? And I said, you know, I used to think that it was everything that made
me different that would be my biggest obstacle, you know, and getting investment and going to
Silicon Valley and you know, people might think that we have this great story, but investors
invest in who they understand, they invest in themselves. That’s why you have this kind of
pattern matching issue because most investors are white men, you know, and so the investing
has both a quantitative and qualitative activity. But if you don’t really understand who that
person is or where they’re coming from, you’re basing everything off of purely quantitative
metrics, which is why women and especially women of color have to do so much more to get
investments and, you know, I think at the end of the day, for us, what we found though was that
our secret sauce was leaning into the things that made us different and that unique perspective
would be the way that we would bring that groundbreaking idea, the change in industry that
hadn’t changed in, you know, almost 200 years and so when I saw that that happened and I saw
the success of the series A, I said, this is the time for us to make sure we don’t forget where we
came from and since we all came from all these different places in the world, let’s go to a very
diverse part of the city that’s also still in the Island of Manhattan and so it’s not that hard to get to
and let’s do it and so we, you know, we’ve been there for three years. It’s been hard. It really
has, but it’s made us better and stronger. I’ll give you an example of some of the technology we
built. There was one very famous academic, one of the leading academics in the space in the
energy industry. He actually, you know, we reached out to him, we were like we’d like to work
with you and he saw, he came up to Harlem and saw what we were doing and he was like, you
know, you guys are really great at brand, but you should let me build your technology. I have
these amazing grad students at this insert fancy university, we know how to build this stuff. You
know, you guys look at your lab, you don’t even have the right, you know, you don’t, we have
multimillion dollar equipment. What do you have? You know, and at this time we were literally
operating out of a brownstone. It was so like steam punk, weird stuff and I was like, okay, we’ll
see, you know, and let him leave and I went to our engineering team at the time, you know, like
the most senior mechanical engineer I had was a girl that was a year and a half out of college.
Rana Nawas: ( 42:18 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 42:20 )
And I said, he says we can’t build this, so what are we going to do? Right? A couple of months
later, he comes back and we had five exed his numbers that he had in his lap and he could not
believe it. Went, evaluated, looked at it, went back to his own team and said, you know, these
are actually the best technologies we’ve ever seen and came and said, I want a job and I said,
okay, I can’t give you a job, but would you now like to join our advisory board? And he said it
would be my honor. You know, we did all of that development in Harlem, in our little, you know,
speak easy type brownstone situation, you know, finding, running tests of our, we were building
infrastructure at the time, literally like going into the streets at night and like, okay, no one’s
looking and like pushing the technology out there and running cars and be like, oh, there’s a car,
there’s a car. But we were hungry. We were humble, we were willing and I just, first of all, you
can’t even, you cannot bring like something out into the road in midtown. You will get arrested
immediately. People will see you. They’ll be like, what are you doing? But in Harlem, there was
a community, there was a vibe. They’re like, oh, that company, look what they’re doing. Well,
that’s cool. People like the fact that when they were walking down the street and their daughter
said, hey dad, you know, or hey mom, what’s going on there? They could tell them what we
were doing and that community pushed us into a place where even though we didn’t have
millions of dollars and all these fancy labs, we could still five X the numbers, you know, of a
major academic in the energy space.
Rana Nawas: ( 43:56 )
Incredible. Wow. Jessica, it’s amazing. Thank you so much.
Jessica Matthews: ( 44:01 )
Thank you so much for having me.
Rana Nawas: ( 44:02 )
So I’m going to go to the rapid fire round. All right, ready? Fast, this one. What’s a question you
wish people would ask you more often?
Jessica Matthews: ( 44:11 )
If I’m thinking about this from the perspective of all of those that I hope will come after me, right?
All those women that are trying to figure out how to build their own companies and launch their
own businesses, ideas. You know, I wish that there were more questions about self care. I wish
there were more questions about Jessica, how do you take care of yourself?
Rana Nawas: ( 44:44 )
How do you take care of yourself, Jessica?
Jessica Matthews: ( 44:45 )
Well, so I had, it took me a long time to figure it out. You know, when I first launched the
company, I’d be working 23 hour days. That’s not sustainable or, you know, I would stress eat,
you know, or anything like that and you know, in my mind if I was like, I’m just going to put 150%
into what I’m building and nothing else matters, and that’s actually not the way this works and it
wasn’t until maybe nine months ago, you know, like I had gone up in weight and down and all
these different things until about nine months ago, after a Disney demo day. So finally it was
public that Disney invested and it was like all the stress was there and I looked at myself in the
mirror and I was like, this doesn’t make sense to me. Like life is too short to not love the way
you look and more importantly the way you feel and for the next stage of where this company
needs to go. I gotta play this out differently. I have to think about this, not as this like intense
push or race, perhaps more I actually needed to pull back and so I actually said, okay, I’m going
to take 20% of the effort I normally put into what I’m building and I’m going to forever put that
into myself. Just 20% but 20% away from the, you know, from 150% is nothing but 20% into one
of zero is everything, right? And within six months I lost 50 pounds. A lot of the health ailments
went away. You know, my blood pressures, you know, stabilized.
Rana Nawas: ( 46:14 )
I’m looking at your muscles, Jessica. What do you do?
Jessica Matthews: ( 46:18 )
You know, I like boxing. I like boxing. Yes, yes and then the mornings that I don’t box the team
knows cause I’m just like, you know, and, you know, it’s still a struggle, but there are certain
things that I’m very uncompromising about because I know that this is not some, like, no, at the
end of the day I not only need to know who I am, I need to love who I am and I need to feel
strong and that strength will permeate through everything, intellectually, spiritually, physically, all
of that is actually what buoys this on the longterm.
Rana Nawas: ( 46:49 )
Yeah and it can’t wait.
Jessica Matthews: ( 46:50 )
And it can’t wait.
Rana Nawas: ( 46:51 )
We can’t wait till like some thing happens or some day comes.
Jessica Matthews: ( 46:54 )
No. You have to kind of establish that and what I found is that figuring out that balance, you
know, I’m not, I haven’t met anyone that said, hmm, you really want to make time to just work
out. Well, I guess actually I’ve met a few people who are like are you sure you shouldn’t just be
working? And you have to.
Rana Nawas: ( 47:11 )
People say that?
Jessica Matthews: ( 47:11 )
And you look at them and you’re just like, and you walk away, you’re like good luck to you in
your life. You know what I mean? Like, no and so, but for the most part, most of them, even my
investors have been like, yeah, they get it because they also know what they had to do, right?
Rana Nawas: ( 47:25 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 47:25 )
To make sure that they can be everything they need to be and so.
Rana Nawas: ( 47:28 )
To be your best self.
Jessica Matthews: ( 47:29 )
To be your best self and so I still try to do a little bit better with sleep, but it’s, that’s, you know,
something always has to kind of give, but even then it’s more of like, oh, I didn’t get seven, I got
five, you know, like it’s not, that whole like, oh, I pulled an all nighter thing. No, why, why. It
doesn’t, it doesn’t make sense and I just think that, you know, we need to start talking about that
more as women and then kind of building onto that, we need to start talking very specifically
about the things that we do behind closed doors to be able to stand next to our male or male
peers and do the same thing they’re doing. That never gets asked enough. Like oftentimes
people invite me someplace and be like, oh yeah, we’ll just going to do this at 7:00 AM. Is that
fine? I’m like, listen, I do have to do my own stuff. So I have to work out. I have to organize. I
also do my hair, I’m gonna do my hair. Like, cool, what do you think this is? I have to do my hair.
That takes time. I have to do my makeup. That takes time. I have to choose what I’m wearing
and make sure that the way I’m sitting doesn’t get you all excited and I’m comfortable. These
things are taxing and they take time, which means you want me to be up at 4:30 AM. Now
you’re messing with my self care and like the thing that people aren’t thinking about this, like
they’re just like, oh yeah, so let’s just do this meeting and why are you running late? Why am I
ready? You woke up, threw water on your face, and a pair of slacks. Why am I running late? No,
we need you to know. So on my team, like I have male engineers that know when I’m going to
get my weave done. Yes, you should know. You should know exactly what’s going on. You
should be involved. You should be helping me pick out the color. 1B or number two Jessica.
Exactly. Because what’s not gonna work is if you don’t know what I’m doing to stand here right
now. You will not appreciate it enough if you don’t know and so we as women need to start
living out loud with that. They should know when we’re on our period. They should know
everything. Send them out to go and get the tampons like, because again, empathy is also part
of the way that people can become allies and if we hide it and we’re like, they just don’t need to
date, you know, don’t worry, let’s just stand there. We’re doing ourselves a disservice because
they don’t know. They have no place to pull from to wonder why we’re tired and if we pretend
like we’re not tired, if we don’t tell them, can we really blame our male allies for not appreciating
how far we’ve come right now?
Rana Nawas: ( 49:50 )
How would they know? I mean, my husband would never have known what a pregnant woman
is going through until he saw me pregnant.
Jessica Matthews: ( 49:56 )
Rana Nawas: ( 49:57 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 49:58 )
Even me, I still read things and I’m like, can more pregnant women talk about the reality like
acne where? Gestational what? Everyone’s just like, oh my God, it’s an amazing experience and
I’m like, is it though?
Rana Nawas: ( 50:09 )
No, no. I talk about it all the time. Whoever’ll hear, whoever’ll listen, I’ve written an article about
it. Don’t baby moon either. That’s a waste of time.
Jessica Matthews: ( 50:20 )
Sorry, I did not wrap it.
Rana Nawas: ( 50:21 )
No, no. So these ones are going to be rapid fire cause you’re gotta go back. What is a book
you’ve read recently?
Jessica Matthews: ( 50:29 )
The History of Man, of Humankind, something like that.
Rana Nawas: ( 50:33 )
Jessica Matthews: ( 50:34 )
Yes. I’ve been reading that as I travel. Yeah.
Rana Nawas: ( 50:37 )
Nice one. A woman who’s influenced you?
Jessica Matthews: ( 50:41 )
The first person who comes to my mind is my mom. One of my favorite inventors, even though
she doesn’t have any patents because, well, my dad was always a technologist. My mom was
the person who refused to not believe, like she always found a way to fix something to make
something happen and that is, that’s the thing that I think kind of pushes me forward.
Rana Nawas: ( 51:08 )
Amazing. Jessica, thank you so much this has been a pleasure.
Jessica Matthews: ( 51:09 )
Rana Nawas: ( 51:11 )
How can listeners find you?
Jessica Matthews: ( 51:13 )
So well, if you want to just kind of learn more about the world again that we’re trying to expose
and live out loud, you can follow me on Instagram and see the realities of what it is to be a tech
CEO. That’s also just a real person @JessoMatt, also uncharted power. We’re currently in
stealth mode on our website but we’re getting ready to launch some exciting things in the fall.
So take a look at really our socials to find out when we relaunch with some really exciting
Rana Nawas: ( 51:43 )
Okay, cool. Well, this is coming out in October-ish, so.
Jessica Matthews: ( 51:45 )
Oh, perfect. So yay, exciting updates.
Rana Nawas: ( 51:50 )
Excellent. Thank you so much.
Jessica Matthews: ( 51:51 )
Awesome, thank you.
Rana Nawas: ( 51:51 )
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