Business

Sure, Beyonce and Oprah Can Be Motivating. But 2020 Pushed This Founder to Dig Deeper to Find Inspiration

For Black History Month, Inc. is catching up with notable Black founders who have appeared on its pages to ask, “Who inspires you?”

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In 2016, Jessica Matthews’s company had raised $7 million. It was known as Uncharted Play and was best known for developing a soccer ball and a jump rope that produced energy when used. As brilliant as those toys were, Matthews had bigger ambitions–to build devices that generated renewable energy, and embed them into a city’s infrastructure. By 2018, her company, now called Uncharted Power, had built an energy-generating speed bump, which creates a kilowatt of electricity, perhaps powering a nearby streetlight. Municipalities weren’t interested.

In response, Uncharted Power began a deep dive into the factors that prevent municipalities from investing in smart, sustainable infrastructure. It realized that municipalities didn’t have a good way to manage a new infrastructure, which meant they couldn’t gain economies of scale from it. In 2019, Uncharted Power began to build just such a platform to help cities streamline and manage the development of renewable infrastructure. It will launch with its first city this year.

Matthews can easily name three people who have long inspired her: Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, and Michelle Obama. But to get through 2020, she needed something more. — As told to Kimberly Weisul

We ended up having an incredibly effective and productive year in 2020. I was inspired by the many communities counting on me. I really leaned into my intersectionality. All the different communities that I was part of gave me different perspectives, and the synergies between them pushed me forward and said I had to keep going.

Over the summer of 2020, seeing America focused on how it was treating Black bodies made me want the country to take a more data-driven approach to government. The data will speak differently than our own subjective view of the world. A big part of our Uncharted Power platform is focused on using data to improve everything from financial efficiencies to equitable access to smart and sustainable infrastructure.

Black people were being hit harder by Covid. Slightly more women were getting Covid, because of the jobs they worked. I knew I could tie this to my own work: How do we push to create more infrastructure jobs?

As a business owner, I felt this need to see my company survive to keep our team employed. To keep them paid. That was a true and utter stress. To get our first Paycheck Protection Program loan, I felt as if I had to know somebody to make it happen. The bank we were with for the whole history of the company was just bullsh*t. I had a board meeting, and I could not show up and say I hadn’t been able to get that money. I had to call a community bank and build a relationship, and I got the PPP in one day.

Everyone should have access to smart and sustainable infrastructure–everything from clean water to Internet access. With what’s going on in the world right now, working toward this goal was something that was worth doing each day.

I encourage anyone who is trying to figure out what to do and how to stay motivated to start with your intersectionality–how you’re connected with others. For example, look at the white male coal miner. Maybe there are health concerns, socio-economic problems that he is facing, and maybe there is an opportunity to find solutions at that intersection. I’m not encouraging anyone to go out and complain about the world. Ask: How can you do your best to help the people you feel very connected to right now? And how can you take advantage of the opportunities you have to do that?

Go deeper on who you are. You’re probably a lot more than you realize.


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