Jessica O. Matthews was 17 when she realized energy or, more specifically, the lack thereof was a serious problem. At the time, the Poughkeepsie native was visiting her extended family in Nigeria to celebrate her aunt’s wedding. Since power regularly goes out multiple times a day in the country, her family had a backup generator onsite to keep the festivities going.
On that day, the fumes from the generator bothered her more than they normally did, and she started to complain to her cousins. When they brushed her off and told her she’d get used to it, she was shocked.
“At the age of 17, I believed anything I wanted to happen could happen,” she recalls. “It seemed crazy that the way my cousins would look at solving this would be to pretend like it’s not happening. They essentially told me that solving the problem is just to get used to it and dying.”
In truth, Matthews was right on the money. Between kerosene lamps and a dependency on generators to combat the regular power outages, pollution in Nigeria not only damages the environment, but it also wears away its people. According to a study by Lighting Africa of World Bank Group, in the period analyzed between July 2014 and June 2018, of the 182 million people living in Nigeria, only 59.3 percent had access to grid electricity. Even among this group, power was unreliable, with 40 percent of people classified as “under-electrified,” or having access to less than 12 hours of grid electricity per day.
With inaccessible and unstable energy across the country, reliance on kerosene lamps and torches is a critical, albeit poisonous, part of life for the bulk of the population.
Over the year-and-a-half period from when Matthews made that poignant complaint to her cousins, she watched three of her family members die.
“All those deaths would’ve been delayed or avoided if they had the [energy] infrastructure,” she says. It was around that time that Matthews, who, after attending high school at Our Lady of Lourdes, completed her undergraduate studies at Harvard University and her graduate degree at Harvard Business School, took a class titled “Idea Translation – Effecting Change Through the Arts and Sciences.” As part of one of the lessons, she and her classmates had to create something that combined art and science in order to address a real problem.
Because of the recent deaths in her family, Matthews couldn’t help but return to the notion of a life well lived and the obstacles that get in the way of achieving that. Although she wasn’t sure if she was an artist or a scientist (she was, in fact, both), she knew that while the loss of her family was one of the darkest moments in her life, the pure, unadulterated joy her cousins experienced while playing soccer was one of the most beautiful things she ever witnessed.
And so, at 19, she invented the Soccket. A hybridized soccer ball, it harnesses and stores energy for later use. While the product itself looked attractive (it’s a soccer ball, after all), it also served a real-world purpose; it offered a replacement for the kerosene lamps upon which her family in Nigeria relied.
To say that the Soccket was a hit would be an understatement. With support from innovators like Bill Gates and Ashton Kutcher, Matthews received more attention for her creation than she ever expected. Upon realizing that her invention was just the tipping point for energy innovation, she took the next step and founded Uncharted Power at 22. Headquartered in Harlem, the power technology company designs and implements renewable power structures across the globe, with an eye toward systems that are just as clean as they are cost-effective.
It’s a heavy endeavor, and one filled with seemingly more questions than answers, and yet it’s a space in which Matthews thrives.
“Infrastructure seemed like way too big of a problem,” she says of the early days of Uncharted Power. “But I’m here, I’m in it, and I have to try.”
Try she most certainly does. Since founding Uncharted Power, Matthews has been recognized for her efforts by everyone by President Obama in 2012 to NASDAQ in 2016. In 2014, she even graced the cover of the Forbes 30 Under 30 issue.
“Forbes was the first media outlet to view me as a CEO with a vision,” she observes. Instead of categorizing her business as a social enterprise, the magazine placed it within the energy sector. Although the distinction might seem like a subtle one, it was a personal victory for her, since it meant Uncharted Power was being taken seriously. Of course, it also meant that Matthews, a woman of color with dual citizenship in Nigeria and the United States, was being given the recognition she deserved.
“You often feel like it’s an uphill battle, like you have to prove yourself to everyone in the room,” she says of the challenges attached to being a person of color in her field. That being said, she sees the struggle as just another obstacle for her to overcome. “If you’ve been training at an Olympic-level facility, when you go out and play, you’re operating on an Olympic level. In a way, it almost makes sense it’s a woman of color who would be doing this. It’s a challenge and an advantage.”
Fast-forward to today, and Matthews isn’t hustling any less than she was at 19. On the contrary, she’s busier than ever on her mission to rethink energy infrastructure across the globe. After operating out of Harlem for years, she’s making the move to open a second location for Uncharted Power in Poughkeepsie.
“It’s where I was born,” she enthuses. “What better place to show what’s possible and build a future than the place that made you who you are?”
Although Uncharted Power’s move to Poughkeepsie is new for Matthews, her involvement with the city is not. She first developed a renewed interest in the region after PKGO Getters, a series of events designed to recognize those individuals who work to help the city thrive, invited her as the inaugural speaker in April 2019.
“I didn’t really know what was going on [in Poughkeepsie],” she says. “I started to see what [PKGO Getters] were doing and what they were trying to build. It’s really exciting.”
In regard to the new space for Uncharted Power, it’s the historic Amrita Club building at the corner of Church and Market Streets in Poughkeepsie. Part of the local National Register of Historic Places, it will serve as a testing and demonstration space while the Harlem location continues to house Uncharted’s offices.
Matthews was already on the hunt for more industrial space when the opportunity to expand to Poughkeepsie presented itself to her. After considering locations in New York City and New Jersey, she realized the Amrita building, which her parents owned, would make the perfect Hudson Valley headquarters. She quickly acquired the venue for Uncharted Power, with plans to open it for business later in 2020.
Through the expansion to Dutchess County, Matthews anticipates an increased opportunity for prototype development and presentations to investors. Uncharted Power recently received an equity investment from Disney, the media company’s first energy investment, that it plans to utilize to develop and distribute its cutting-edge energy infrastructure.
“It’s a recognition of not only what our technology can do, but a recognition of our authentic narrative,” she says of the backing by Disney. “For everyone to have access to Disney content, everyone needs to have access to power. It’s another example of how far-reaching access to power is.”
In regard to specific projects, Uncharted Power currently focuses on the transition from aboveground to below-round energy infrastructure. Citing the unreliability of power lines during storms, Matthews seeks to move that energy network belowground while maintaining the same price point and ease of upgradability. With Uncharted’s system, communities will not only be able to establish a more reliable, secure system of energy transmission, but also pinpoint any issues to within one square mile of the problem.
“With the current system [of aboveground energy], you have no idea of the issue until someone calls [the power company],” she notes. “We’re able to pinpoint it in seconds.”
Going along with this, Uncharted is currently developing smart city infrastructure to establish everything from better parking solutions to faster transmission of data and power. In Connecticut, the company is building a micro-grid on a resort as a model for global technology on a smaller scale. In the future, it plans to showcase its systems in Poughkeepsie while working with global developers to reach the communities that need Uncharted most.
“I’m excited to bring global attention to Poughkeepsie,” Matthews enthuses. “What we’re doing in Poughkeepsie can be a model for the entire world.”