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In September 2016, Uncharted Play, a company that makes energy-generating products, raised $7 million in a series A financing round and became the 13th company with a black female founder to raise more than $1 million in outside investment.
At that point, founder Jessica O. Matthews was faced with a choice. Many people assumed she’d move the company’s office, which was based in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood, out west to Silicon Valley, where venture-backed firms are concentrated. But given her background, she says she felt out of place in that world. She decided to stay in New York and move the company uptown to Harlem — a neighborhood not exactly known for being a startup ecosystem.
Uncharted Play, founded in 2011, makes systems that can harness renewable energy from motion to power infrastructure or consumer goods. For instance, the first product, a soccer ball, contained technology that captured energy as it rolled and transferred it to an internal battery.
While the company started with two play-focused products — one being the soccer ball and the other a jump rope, which also transferred rotational energy to a battery — it’s since moved onto bigger solutions, like integrating its proprietary technology into speed bumps, sidewalks and more. The goal is to make sustainable energy accessible to all, especially those who live off the grid.
Today, toward her mission of giving individuals control over their futures, Uncharted Play invests heavily in the Harlem community and has even set up a nonprofit, the Harlem Tech Fund, with the aim of growing the tech talent pool in the neighborhood.
Someday, Matthews says she hopes Uncharted Play will become Harlem’s first billion-dollar tech company. Here’s what she’s learned throughout her entrepreneurial journey so far.
This conversation has been edited.
What have you learned about growth while doing good?
Growing up, I always had an interest in invention and human behavior, and doing things that combine the two things together. As it turns out, to do that sustainably and at scale, you have to build a business. You have to understand what it means to organize people and ideas and push them forward in a structured manner. And so for me, the goal of business is to create a methodology and a way of thinking about sustainable, scalable impact. I think that’s what’s made it easier for me to make some of the hard decisions, where you have to balance your soul with the business world. I know the goal isn’t just to do business — it’s to do something with the business in an authentic way.
What have you learned about culture while doing good?
Diversity is the key to maintaining your business — internally disrupting your business so that you’re not being externally disrupted by other businesses. Uncharted Play has a unique approach to diversity and inclusion: We’ve moved our headquarters to Harlem, and a large portion of our engineering staff are women and minorities. In our neighborhood, we are exposed to many different types of people, all living their lives in various ways. And it is this natural immersion that we experience each day that helps to influence the development of our company’s core technology. As a woman of color, it’s really important that we think about diversity not as charity, but as something that’s good for business.
What advice do you have for other businesses looking to do good?
Something that helped me get through some of the tougher times in running the company was having a slightly different background than most CEOs in the tech space. Coming from Poughkeepsie, being the daughter of immigrants, being a black woman — all of these things have presented circumstances which added some degree of uncertainty to my own life growing up. But it’s the ability to be comfortable with this uncertainty that gives me the strength for running a company.
Entrepreneurship is 100 percent owning and living in uncertainty. For those who have always had really comfortable experiences and haven’t really experienced struggle in their lives, the struggle of being an entrepreneur can be something that really turns them upside down.