Nigerian-American Entrepreneur Uses Playtime to Change the World

A college class project in 2008 inspired Jessica O. Matthews and Julia Silverman to enter an unexplored industry and co-found her own for-profit start-up, Uncharted Play.

Posted: 09/05/2013 03:30 PM EDT

What is fun, practical and kicked all over?  

The SOCCKET, an energy harnessing and supplying soccer ball invented by social entrepreneurs Jessica O. Matthews (pictured above) and Julia Silverman.

As social science students at Harvard University, the two teamed up for a project in their class on engineering for non-engineering majors. Faced with the task of devising a solution to a problem facing the world, Matthews and Silverman dreamed up the innovative concept in 2008.

The omnipresence of soccer throughout developing nations coupled with the widespread inaccessibility of electricity and fume-emitting kerosene lamps motivated Matthews, who is Nigerian-American, and Silverman to produce a ball that children could play with and, later, use to power various devices.

Five years — and a number of accolades from President Obama and others — later, they have continued “improving lives through play” through their for-profit social enterprise, Uncharted Play.

“If everything was super easy I wouldn’t want to do it, because it just doesn’t seem very interesting,” Matthews told BET.com in a recent phone interview.

The ambitious 25-year-old social entrepreneur spoke about her company’s next energy-generating play product and the advantages of exploring an “uncharted” industry outside of one’s comfort zone and being an entrepreneur of color.

BET.com: What are some of the initial challenges that you faced when starting Uncharted Play?

Jessica O. Matthews:

So many, right? I think, to start, I had to teach myself because engineers didn’t first believe in [SOCCKET.] I had to teach myself mechanical and electrical engineering that I would need to actually build the prototype. Getting people to see us as a company versus just the ball, I think, is definitely something that I had to work on. The biggest challenges are you have to build the team and you have to build the company. I would say it’s really easy to have an idea. It’s a little bit harder to actually make that idea a reality. And what allows you to execute is understanding what it means to run a business and understanding what it means to build one.

What’s on the horizon for Uncharted Play?

Our focus right now is to really own the energy-generating play industry if there is one. We’re working on some World Cup partnerships for the SOCCKET. We’ve developed an energy-generating jump rope tentatively called The Pulse. We’re also working on some government deals with some African countries and developing world countries to get the products out there as both a utility for the children who don’t have reliable access to power but also as an educational tool.

Right now, we’re really excited about an impact model that we’ve been testing that actually uses a portable lamp with our products. So, instead of giving one SOCCKET to a child or one jump rope to a child, we want to distribute the products through the schools. This makes the kids want to go to school and makes the parents want their kids to go to school because now they’re bringing home light versus just staying home to do chores and whatnot.

Did you ever have any reservations about entering this field without an engineering degree?

When [SOCCKET] came about, I wasn’t really seeing it as an engineering problem. I saw it as a people problem, because I think the technology is relatively simple. You look at a windmill. You look at a self-winding watch. It’s just a different formation on that. But the thought of putting it inside of a ball or inside of a jump rope or surrounding this around play, that requires an understanding of people and the fact that they want to do things in a fun way.

What would you like the BET.com readers to know?

In social entrepreneurship, a lot of people doing it don’t necessarily look like the people they’re helping. I’m one of those few people who does look like the person that I’m trying to help. And that actually goes a long way. I just hope that more minorities can feel comfortable taking the risks to do this and realize that this can be a successful path for them.

In fact, our experiences prime us to be great entrepreneurs and to be great impact workers, because as a community we experience so much and we were forced to live and deal with so much and overcome so much. That’s all entrepreneurship is. It’s just being a hustler and getting up each day and being like, “I’m going to handle this situation.” You’d be surprised how much easier it is if you grew up having to do that. So, I really hope that this small little thing can touch a few people and make them step forward to do this.

This interview has been edited for clarity purposes.

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(Photo: Uncharted Party)

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