A dual citizen of Nigeria and New York, U.S. (her parents emigrated from the former to the latter), Jessica O. Matthews invented the Soccket Ball, a soccer ball that captures and stores motion-based, off-grid, renewable energy (M.O.R.E) to electrify under-served communities in the developing world, when she was just a junior at Harvard University.
In 2011, Matthews founded Uncharted Power (formerly known as Uncharted Play) with a mission of decentralizing and democratizing power, to create access to renewable energy all around the world, and in 2017, her team raised more than $7 million in Series A venture capital funding — the largest raised by any Black woman in history at the time.
Now in its fourth iteration, Uncharted Power’s Think Out of Bounds educational curriculum has created a movement to empower young inventors through partnerships with local nonprofits in the United States (New York, Maryland and Florida), Africa (Nigeria and Swaziland), Europe (Germany) and Puerto Rico.
Today, Matthews and her team are preparing to make even bigger moves to decentralize energy, as they tackle the current grid system. Their solutions demonstrate an alternative that is modular, clean and much more easily installed than the currently used infrastructure systems found in the U.S. Their infrastructure solutions will catalyze change for utility industries, land developers, community developers, Tel-Co’s and 5G service providers, Internet of Things (IoT), and more.
So, what sustains Matthews with all of this power?
“Regardless of where I was specifically born, who I am is very much grounded in the fact that I am Nigerian-American. It’s not one or the other and not necessarily one more than the other. It is my complete situation. I would not be who I am today if I did not have that juxtaposition,” she shares. “If you just see me as an African-American person in the United States, you wouldn’t understand why it was so important for me to solve this problem — what I was doing in Nigeria and the root cause that pushed this. At the same time, if I was just calling myself Nigerian, you wouldn’t understand how I was exposed to enough resources to solve this problem. My Nigerian side made me believe that change was possible. My American side exposed me to the connections and resources I needed to make it happen.”
For Matthews, her hyphens have been her competitive advantage against those who would underestimate her. “As a woman, people will inherently see you as less. Whether you’re speaking about what your technology can do, or you’re going to the hospital saying, ‘I’m sick, and I need medication.’ You add on being a Black woman, it multiplies,” Matthews says. “I decided this would be my competitive advantage. Being underestimated enabled me to have a safe space to till, nurture, and cultivate my vision without people immediately saying, ‘You’re a target. We need to end you.’ Instead they thought, ‘You’re no threat.’ If you’re spending half your time blocking people, you’re not building. The mistake they made is they gave me enough time to quietly build a team, build out IP, and build a level of confidence.”
Matthews continues, “Sometimes you don’t need everyone to believe in you, you just need time to figure out what you’re building and how you’re going to be prepared to stand next to it. So, now we’re entering a stage of the organization where we’re about to show everyone what we’re doing. Sometimes being underestimated can be your best asset.”
As a company, Uncharted Power is preparing to move from quietly building to boldly shining. “In the last few years, we’ve been working on technology for infrastructure, meaning not something you can buy off the shelf or on Amazon, but the things you find around you in your build environment,” Matthews says. “It required us to understand way more about energy infrastructure than probably 99 percent of the world. Everyone understands a soccer ball that generates energy. Very few people understand why decentralized power, transmitted through underground or above-ground transmission lines, is what’s holding us back. By 2020, we will begin showcasing our very precise solution.”
For Matthews, inspiration and service are at the heart of Uncharted Power. “We want to serve and inspire a billion people,” Matthews shares. “We need as many people as possible to believe they can be part of the solution.”
Today, Matthews continues to lead a movement of empowerment by leveraging her plurality. “Our intersectionality shouldn’t be something you gloss over,” she says. “It should be something you lean into because it enables you to build empathy with as many different types of people as possible. We should take the time to hyphenate, then lean in and understand it. We need to own our ‘other’.”