SaLisa Berrien, Founder & CEO, COI Energy
kW (or Kilowatts) for Good: How One Founder's Lived Experience Inspired a Solution to Improve the Health of the Planet and the Lives of People
Q: Tell us about COI Energy and its mission.
SaLisa: COI Energy (that's pronounced C-O-I and not "coy") is a digital energy management platform where we help businesses eliminate energy waste and then repurpose that waste for good causes. Some of those good causes include helping balance the electric grid and reducing the carbon footprint of commercial building stock, which produces 40% of global carbon emissions. We help those energy consumers drive down their carbon emissions. But we also use the energy that would otherwise go to waste to provide equitable access to clean energy resources for marginalized communities. Businesses waste 30% of the energy they consume – nearly $55 billion last year – while 1 in 3 families in the United States experience energy poverty. So, when I had the opportunity to come up with a solution to minimize energy waste, I wanted to make sure that embedded in my business model was energy equity.
Q: A unique aspect of your business model is to repurpose energy for good. Without getting too technical, how do you repurpose the saved energy?
SaLisa: To keep it basic, it's a financial transaction. The saved energy has an economic value. When a business improves its energy performance, it results in energy savings that can be shared with others – like ride share or renewable energy credits. Every kW of flexible capacity has a dollar value and can be sold or gifted to someone else – back to the utility, to a business, or to a third party – as a credit towards clean energy capacity.
That's where our platform comes in. We call it a transactive energy marketplace. Right now, transactions on our platform are business to utility or business to grid operator, but we're expanding to facilitate business-to-business transactions. Every transaction is documented on our platform with complete transparency. That means purchasers know where their credits came from, and sellers know who is using their excess energy. This enables sellers to make decisions as to who they sell to and at what price. For example, a seller might decide just to sell at the highest price or, if there is buyer that is a female-owned business, the seller might choose to sell at a lower price and direct the energy to support that business. There are tax incentives for gifting energy credits to marginalized communities. Our platform allows sellers of energy credits to take advantage of tax incentives by directing their excess credits to energy-insecure communities. That's why we call the energy savings our solution generates "kW for Good."
Q: Now that we know what COI Energy does, tell why you chose a career in energy and why you founded your company.
SaLisa: My family was one of those 1 in 3 families in the U.S. that experience energy poverty. I was born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and was the fourth of five children. Growing up, my family couldn't always afford to pay for energy, and we often went without power. We had kerosene heaters downstairs and upstairs with big pots on them so the hot water boiling would produce steam to warm up the space. And as you can imagine, we had several accidents at home because of that. In school, the kids would make fun of me because we didn't have electricity. It was embarrassing. It was as if someone took away my dignity. When we were able to pay the bill, the utility workers who came out to our home to reconnect the power were my heroes. Because of my experiences, I vowed that I would go to work for a utility company so I too could be a hero. And, when I was in college and had my choice of several internships, including at tech companies and pharmaceutical companies, I chose energy. I will always remember what it felt like living in the dark. As a result, all my career choices have been motivated by my desire to see that no one has to experience what I went through as a child.
Q: Because of your lived experience you chose to work in energy, a traditionally white male-dominated industry. What challenges have you faced as a Black woman in energy?
SaLisa: When I chose energy in college, my friends joked about it and warned me that my career would stagnate, especially since I was passing up opportunities in tech and pharmaceuticals. But I blocked out the noise because I knew that I wanted to make a difference and address the issues I experienced as a child living with energy insecurity. My first job was at Pennsylvania Power & Light – now PPL – in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I was the only Black woman in my department; everyone else was white and male. I adjusted to that reality, but it was a constant challenge.
I spent the first 10 years of my career working at utilities. Throughout that time, I suffered from lack of confidence and always second guessed myself. The next phase in my career was working for four different energy startups. That's when I began to appreciate my value in creating something from nothing.
Q: What was your role in the startup world, and how has that experience helped you build COI Energy?
SaLisa: At my first startup – a CleanTech company in Boston – I was in sales. Again, I found myself an outsider. Most of my peers had graduated from Ivy League schools, while I'm proud to say I got my degree at University of Pittsburgh. My peers all followed the accepted business model targeting small-to-medium businesses or, as they would call it, singles, doubles and sometimes triples. I was known to target home runs and grand slams – the larger customers. Knowing what success looked like, I continued down this path even though it wasn't the company's business model. By my second year, I exceeded my annual goal in August, and by my third year I exceeded my annual goal the first week in April. That's when people started to take notice.
I became one of the top salespeople at that company. The difference between me and my peers was that I had 10 years of industry experience. And that helped me succeed in my strategy of selling to industrial and commercial customers. I knew the customer base and what it would take to develop sustainable relationships.
I went to several other startups after that and I kept seeing this recurring theme: Salespeople just wanted to sell their product, but they weren't focused on the customer and what the customer wanted or needed. The difference in my approach was to get to know the customer's problem and then try to solve it. And if I couldn't solve their problem, I was honest with them and steered them to another solution that would fix their problem. That customer-centric focus always brought people back. They wanted to do business with me because I was out to solve their problems. That's what builds sustainable relationships, and that's why many of the relationships that I built at the earlier startups are now customers of COI Energy.
Q: Tell us what "COI" means and how it represents your values both personally and professionally.
SaLisa: COI stands for Circle of Influence. I truly believe that we succeed or fail because of the people around us. I recognize that I didn't get to where I am today by myself. I got here because of the people and organizations around me and my company. They are my circle of influence. They have challenged me. They have kept me honest. They have propelled the company forward and I'm so thankful for that. So many companies and organizations have gotten behind our mission and have supported us. That's what has made us successful.
It's going to take all of us to solve the climate and energy problems of today. So, that's where COI Energy is creating its own circle of influence – working with blue-chip clients across the world to collaborate and make a difference to bring carbonless, clean, affordable energy to all. COI Energy is helping keep the lights on for all New Yorkers and across the nation, especially for marginalized communities.
Learn how SaLisa continues to expand her Circle of Influence through the COI Ladder Institute: COI Ladder Institute