[Correction, March 25, 2021: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Uncharted Power as being based in Poughkeepsie, NY. The company is actually located in Harlem, NY.]
In a matter of months, the class of 2021, a student body literally plagued by uncertainty, will set out for adulthood. One certainty, though, is that Poughkeepsie local and entrepreneur Jessica O. Matthews will deliver the 157th commencement address. Matthews is the founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, a NY-based technology firm. With her company, Matthews is pioneering cutting edge urban infrastructure right here in Poughkeepsie.
The implementation started out modest. Uncharted Power’s first product was an energy capturing soccer ball called the SOCCKET which produced enough electricity to power a lamp for a few hours. Her efforts were recognized by former President Barack Obama, who invited Matthews on a trip to Tanzania in 2013. “You can imagine this in villages all across the continent,” Obama said after kicking around the futuristic football.
Matthews, the daughter of immigrants, holds dual citizenship in the United States and her parents’ Nigeria. She grew up in the Town of Poughkeepsie and attended Our Lady of Lourdes High School, which neighbors the Vassar Farm.
Her father owned several businesses in the town and city of Poughkeepsie, but before college Matthews reasoned that she’d have to leave her home town. “It wasn’t entirely clear to me why,” she said to me in a video call. “On paper,” reflected Matthews, “Poughkeepsie had so much—multiple higher education institutions, a train that got you directly from the city of Poughkeepsie to New York City…people who were both very much local and global in their perspective.” Matthews matriculated to Harvard for undergrad and then business school. After graduating from Harvard, Matthews started Uncharted Play with classmates in New York City.
In the years since, Matthews has shifted the focus of her company, now called Uncharted Power, and raised $7 million, the most lucrative series A funding ever for a woman of color. As remarkable an achievement as it is, it was the average amount raised across the board in 2016 according to Matthews, a deficit she recognizes. Matthews contemplated, “I will say that I work very very hard for me to be one of the few Black women in this space and to have survived this long you can only imagine how hard I work…I have to…I’m not male. I’m not older. I’m not white.”
Seeing the potential for innovation in Poughkeepsie, Matthews recently moved back to invest in her hometown. Instead of harnessing the power of soccer balls, she’s now building technological infrastructure into sidewalks. “Uncharted is trying to bring infrastructure and education initiatives to communities so people feel like they can have roots and wings in one place,” she said. These roots and wings are what she hopes to give the future of Poughkeepsie, something she felt was missing in her youth. “When I was growing up, I knew I had my roots here, but I felt like my wings would only come if I left…It’s because, you know, the goal will be that people say I was born here, I was raised here and I never left and I never had to.”
Matthews and the city of Poughkeepsie are now undertaking a $2 million pilot program to make it the first “smart city.” The project, for now localized to Cannon Street, will overhaul the city’s infrastructure. Sidewalks will share data on city services like parking spaces and decaying city structures, and even support broadband Internet service and 5G according to the Poughkeepsie Journal.
Despite the futuristic-sounding nature of the technology, Matthews insisted that the ideas aren’t “Jetson-esque” but based on solving Poughkeepsie citizens’ problems. Natalie Quinn, a city planner in the mayor’s office, reached out to Uncharted Power. Matthews, Quinn and city of Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rollison began collaborating on a way to address some of the city’s infrastructure issues. “People complain about the sidewalks being broken a lot. And we’re like, well, we can do better. People complain about parking. People complain about connectivity, and how, in certain pockets of the community, the ones that are particularly black and brown, they had serious connectivity issues.”
To Matthews, those problems are also opportunities to address systemic inequality and outdated infrastructure. It’s no secret that Poughkeepsie is on the verge of a certain revitalization. The built-in advantages that Matthews mentioned earlier, coupled with the throngs of Manhattanites fleeing the city for the exurbs, have Poughkeepsie positioned for a real estate boom. As of now, Poughkeepsie is home to a diverse but economically disadvantaged community. It was disappointing watching Main Street, Poughkeepsie’s diverse economic thoroughfare, “keep falling back versus moving forward,” Matthews recalled.
Yet an infrastructure overhaul in time for a real estate boom smacks of gentrification, yet Matthew’s hope is that her project will be equitable. “We’re…working with so many different stakeholders within Poughkeepsie, and getting ongoing feedback and really saying, Let’s totally disrupt the way infrastructure is built, the way it’s managed,” she mused. Uncharted Power consulted with Nubian Directions and Community Matters, two Poughkeepsie based community organizations. They worked with the Poughkeepsie School Board too. As Matthews tells it, “We just wanted to listen.”
The collaboration is ambitious, one that would place Poughkeepsie on the cutting edge of civic technology. It speaks to the resilience of both Matthews and her hometown coming out of the pandemic, an idea she is sure to draw from in her address to the class of 2021.