SaLisa Berrien has become the role model she didn’t have.
Though her family was entrepreneurial in their own ways, it took a high school teacher to introduce her to her career field of engineering. With grit and determination, she went on to become a first-generation college student, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a mechanical engineering degree in four years -- while raising a young daughter and sometimes bringing her to class.
Berrien later earned a master’s degree in Business Administration from Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s University, and opened Tampa-based COI Energy, a company now expanding across the United States.
Recognized by Jason A. Scott last year as one of 30 U.S. black founders to watch in 2021
, Berrien was one of 50 companies to receive a $100,000 Black Founders Fund award from Google for Startups
. She participated in Google Startups for Women, which she completed last December, and has raised $2 million-plus in funds.
“My goal is to make this [COI] a global company,” says Berrien, who qualified for the reduced-lunch program as a child. “From there, my next step would be to start investing in other companies.”
When she was growing up, Berrien’s family tried to nurture a work ethic in the children
“We’re planning on expanding into Texas as well. Texas will come shortly after California. Then after Texas, that’s when I think we’re going to be in a position to open up the rest of the states,” says COI Energy Founder SaLisa Berrien of Tampa.
by taking them to pick peas in the fields. But Berrien resisted all she could; she was determined that wouldn’t be her.
Instead, the Bethlehem-PA native raised money selling frozen Kool Aid or selling things with the girl’s club she started when she wasn’t able to join the Girl Scouts. Her Godmother, the late Barbara Duffy, encouraged her by buying her a cash register.
“I come from a family of leaders. ... They always made something from nothing,” she asserts.
Berrien watched as some family members became entrepreneurial, running a string of hair salons and opening a record shop. She recognized she could accomplish things too.
Surrounded by family and mentors
Though she stepped out of her comfort zone, she had lots of help: From her teacher Barbara Irvine, who noted her aptitude for math and science, to Dr. Karl Lewis at the University of Pittsburgh, to her aunt Susan and mentors from a number of startup programs.
Morgan Stanley’s Multicultural Innovation Lab introduced her to the startup ecosystem and fundraising in 2018. She also had assistance from Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, Embarc Collective
in Tampa, and USF Tampa Bay Technology Incubator
, which received the Outstanding Client Specialty Award
last May from the International Business Innovation Association for helping her.
Berrien bought a home in Tampa, her father’s hometown, in 2014, and opened her business in 2016. She’s steadily been growing COI, incorporating and beta testing her energy-saving business-to-business platform in 2018. She continued to recruit customers for beta testing through 2019, before going live in 2020.
The firm now serves customers throughout Florida and in 13 mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia. In addition to its offices at USF Connect in the university’s Research Park, it now operates its headquarters at 802 E. Whiting St. in Tampa. It also operates a New York City office and is planning to roll out its services in San Francisco in December.
“We’re planning on expanding into Texas as well. Texas will come shortly after California. Then after Texas, that’s when I think we’re going to be in a position to open up the rest of the states,” she says.
She anticipates opening in Texas in the first quarter of 2022, with the other states following in 2023.
AI and machine learning solutions
Berrien has stepped in to meet a need: She estimates that companies waste about one-third of their energy. Her company’s ability to predict a business’ upcoming utility bill can encourage it to look at new ways to reduce energy costs.
“We do that through artificial intelligence and machine learning,” she explains.
While there is competition in the field, COI’s approach to the problem is different.
“We have a new bread. The way we engage with customers is more efficient. It’s fast. It’s efficient and it’s cost effective,” she explains. “Technology has definitely made a difference for us.”
She believes in giving customers what they ask for.
“Focus on the customers. Even if you can’t solve their problem, they will always come back to you,” she says.
With a staff of 19, COI Energy
serves more than 350, a high percentage of them in Florida. It expects to add five full-time positions in January, in addition to some six to eight internship positions. Employees have been given an option to work in person or virtually; for those that work on site, Tampa is the preferred location for applicants because it is the largest market.
COI will be hiring product managers, customer success coordinators, full-stack engineers and interns in software development, she says.
Berrien gives back through her KW for Good program, which allocates money for communities that need help paying their electric bills. She also awards scholarships to the University of Pittsburgh, where serves on the Board of Trustees.
What does she recommend to other startups, especially those that are led by women and/or minorities?
“Follow your passion and believe in yourself,” she says. “It’s not for the faint of heart. If you believe in what you’re doing, you can achieve. But you have to have that confidence and belief in yourself, because a lot of people will say ‘no’ to you.”