How A Tampa Clean Energy Startup Bootstrapped Its Way To A $1M Contract, On Mogul Watch

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
clean energy
SaLisa, L. Berrien, Founder and CEO of COI Energy| Photo credit: COI Energy

There are about 500 clean energy and renewable energy startups trying to monetize sustainability and consumption They’re focused on energy use, savings or waste, but one stands out because it doesn’t just help customers save money. It pays them.

COI Energy Services allows its users to monetize their energy efficient buildings and it pays them for the data they give utility companies.  

On a mission to make the world more energy efficient, COI Energy is improving building energy performance and grid optimization,
according to its website. The company helps utilities and businesses to optimize energy performance while monetizing unused power.

Led by founder and CEO SaLisa L. Berrien, COI Energy has experienced robust growth since its 2016 inception in Tampa, Florida.

When you look at my company, you will see diversity. Energy is a good space be in. A lot of folks just weren’t educated about it even being a career option. It was lonely, but now I try to bring people into an industry that doesn’t look like me.

SaLisa L. Berrien, founder and CEO of COI Energy

Berrien has two decades-plus of experience in the energy business. She used that, along with artificial intelligence and a machine-learning algorithm, to launch the company.

Now Berrien is one of eight companies in the New York SAP.iO Foundry accelerator, she’s a finalist in Steve Case’s upcoming Rise of the Rest Tour in Tampa, and she has a partnership with a global company.

One of the first startups in the smart grid, Berrien has partnered with software giant SAP and Morgan Stanley.


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Showing no signs of slowing down, Berrien talked to Moguldom about
bootstrapping the company to its first million-dollar contract, her nonprofit and why she likes being based in Tampa.

My motivation for the company came from hearing customers ask for something they weren’t getting. So I went out on my own to solve the problem.

SaLisa L. Berrien, founder and CEO of COI Energy

Moguldom: Why did you start COI Energy Services?

SaLisa Berrien: I’ve been in the energy industry for a couple of decades. From my experience in working with the B2B markets in utilities, I found a fundamental problem that continuously came up. It was an issue of a lack of transparency in the ecosystem. The lack of transparency created an atmosphere of lack of trust from customers with their energy providers. Wherever there is a lack of transparency, you find inefficiency. If you bring transparency to the process at utility companies, you’ll drive efficiency, you’ll lower costs, and you’ll delight your customers on all levels.

The utility customer is delighted because, at the end of the day, it will reduce costs, which impacts all of us. My motivation for the company came from hearing customers ask for something they weren’t getting. So, I went out on my own to solve the problem and give the customers what they’re asking for concerning their energy problems. Basically, we found a better way to manage their energy, do it at a lower cost and by the way, besides driving efficiency in your building, we’re going to pay you for becoming more energy efficient.

A lot of customers don’t understand that concept. They are surprised to learn we’re going to help them save money and pay them. When you reduce energy usage, you can give energy back to the grid and be paid to do so. Your company can help protect the environment because we’re reducing carbon emissions by becoming more energy efficient. I’ve always been focused on solutions and making sure I addressed customers’ concerns.

Moguldom: How do utility companies feel about your company?

SaLisa Berrien: I received an overwhelming response from different utilities. They’ve never had visibility behind the meter. And when you hear utility companies say ‘behind the meter’, what they’re talking about is seeing what people have inside the building. What kind of equipment are customers using that’s driving their energy usage? Utilities only know up to the meter they have on the outside of your building. Now we’re giving them visibility beyond the meter. They can have a better perspective since they can see what resources are in these buildings. This can actually help them balance the grid. So, it has been nothing but positive responses. We have to catch up because there’s a big opportunity out here and we would like to be able to serve every single commercial customer. We’re actually scaling up to position ourselves to do that.

My biggest lesson was that people not familiar with the startup ecosystem don’t understand what equity is. In the beginning, I wasn’t very clear that equity has real value and it’s not charity. I had to quickly learn to re-position my expectations.

SaLisa L. Berrien, founder and CEO of COI Energy

Moguldom: You have grown from launching on your own to building up your company’s staff. What type of lessons have you learned from growing your team?

SaLisa Berrien: We bootstrapped the business to our first million-dollar contract. When I first started, I was like, “OK, I’ll give you equity if you can help me build this.” And my biggest lesson was that people not familiar with the startup ecosystem, they don’t have a full understanding of what equity is. That became a problem. A lot of the folks I talked to in my early days of the company, would say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll go get some equity. I’ll come over when I can.” Then those people would show up when they wanted to. In the beginning, I wasn’t very clear that equity has real value and it’s not charity. I had to quickly learn to re-position my expectations with folks in the beginning. There are people I let go from those early days, now they see where we are at and why I had to be so firm. No one likes to get rid of people, but in order for the company to survive, I knew I had to do it.

Moguldom: What were some of your biggest challenges?

SaLisa Berrien: There’s a lot of challenges as a startup founder, but one is that it is a lonely place to be. A lot of people don’t understand your journey and so it’s difficult when you don’t have people you can just bounce things off of. I quickly learned that having a board of advisors is really key. In my first year, I established my board of advisors, for that very reason. I had no one that understood what I was doing. I have a whole lot of friends that have their own businesses, but they’re different types of businesses. They’re not VC backed. Being able to have folks that can help me walk down this journey was limited and I had to try to create that circle for myself. And now, with the different accelerators I participated in, I have a group of friends that are all founders where we all support each other.

You go through the valley in your entrepreneur walk, but then you have these mountaintop experiences. And the good thing about it is that the mountaintop experiences are not all at the end. You get them at different levels and milestones.

SaLisa L. Berrien, founder and CEO of COI Energy

Moguldom: What have been some notable wins since you began?

SaLisa Berrien: We have had so much. I think that’s what makes the journey not as difficult. You go through the valley in your entrepreneur walk, but then you have these mountaintop experiences. And the good thing about it is that the mountaintop experiences are not all at the end. You get them at different levels and milestones. For me, getting a great team has been a phenomenal win. That’s a big one for us because it’s all about having a winning team. I’m delighted that I have a great team that understands the vision, and they’re driving towards our goals, which has helped us progress to where we’re at. We brought on more customers to our platform and are scaling too.

Being the first smart-grid startup of our type to partner with SAP and Morgan Stanley, and the list goes on. There are a whole lot of great things that have happened since we started three years ago.

Moguldom: How did you meet your investors?

SaLisa Berrien: A lot of our investors are through relationships — meeting them through a warm introduction or a hot introduction. I initially started off doing cold calling before leveraging my network. I quickly found out that doesn’t work. One of my favorite books was “Venture Deals“. It takes you through the whole process of how you need to do things, and I probably should have read that book prior to trying to cold call somebody.

I believe in whom much is given, much is required. I didn’t get to where I’m at because of SaLisa. I got here because of the shoulders that I stand on of the people who paved the way for me. I believe it’s my duty to give back.

SaLisa L. Berrien, founder and CEO of COI Energy

Moguldom: You have a nonprofit and an event coming up. Can you give us a little bit of insight on both?

SaLisa Berrien: I started my nonprofit, Strive, 24 years ago in May. Strive is an after-school STEM and leadership development program. I stopped running it years ago, and we have a director and coordinators running the programs now. I would come in and the students would love asking me questions, but about 10 years ago, I came into one of the sessions and it was like I wasn’t relevant.

I realized the generation that I started this nonprofit with are now millennials. They can relate to me, but the younger kids were like, “this old lady.” (laughs) So, I started the COI Ladder Institute, which is also under the Strive umbrella. Now we have the K through 12 after school program, and the COI Ladder Institute, which is a program focused on millennials and women and helping them elevate themselves and their businesses to the next level. It’s good for folks that are interested in moving up to the C-suite and looking for direction on how to get there. It’s also for individuals that want to have a startup or are looking to scale.

We provide workshops on these topics and our “Unleashing the Power of Women Retreat” event is coming up Aug. 6to Aug. 8 in Martha’s Vineyard. I really believe in giving back. I believe in whom much is given, much is required. I didn’t get to where I’m at because of SaLisa. I got here because of the shoulders that I stand on of the people who paved the way for me. I believe it’s my duty to give back and pay it forward. My mantra is that I want the space I occupy to be better off than when I got there.

The last two years, I’m more focused now on startup women-led founders, or their leadership team and helping them accelerate because that’s what I’m trying to do for myself.

Moguldom: How do you feel about being a startup in Tampa?

SaLisa Berrien: I’m super excited about it. I mean I probably would not have started it anywhere else. I moved to Florida officially and bought my house five years ago. I was commuting there since 2011. When I moved to Tampa a peace came on me and my creativity opened up being there. I’m from Allentown, Pennsylvania. I love my hometown but I have to tell you, I’m not sure I would have started my own company if I was still in Allentown. I didn’t get that same energy and support I did there like when I moved to Tampa. I’m in New York right now on business and we’ll probably open up an office here, but I will always have my home in Tampa. Our office and the entire team are in Tampa. There are no plans to move out of Tampa at all. With my youth organization, Strive, we helped to create three NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) junior chapters with two being in Florida at USF and also Florida Polytechnic. I’m a Tampanian now.

What our parents taught us is that we have to be 10 times better, because we’re always going to be discounted, because of our color. Until our country makes culture changes, we still deal with that

SaLisa L. Berrien, founder and CEO of COI Energy

Moguldom: There are not a lot of women or people of color in the energy space. What has your experience been like since launching your company?

SaLisa Berrien: The way I was brought up, we can’t use our race as an excuse. What our parents taught us is that we have to be 10 times better, because we’re always going to be discounted, because of our color. Until our country makes culture changes, we still deal with that, even with fundraising. As you know and the statistics show women-led startups and investments by VCs in them are a small percentage of funding raised and even lower as minority women. I bootstrapped for two-and-a-half years because I had to prove that I had a product. A lot of folks may not have to prove the way we have to, but I don’t take it as a negative. I take it as it just makes us better. You have to make sure you have the foundation solid. And then with a solid foundation, you can go anywhere, right? When I first got out of college, it was lonely and it was uncomfortable because I never ran across people that look like me most of the time. But I’ve gotten used to it, not to say that it’s a good thing.

But what I recognize is that you know, you bring people in your space. When you look at my company, you will see diversity. Energy is a good space be in. A lot of folks just didn’t know and weren’t educated about it even being a career option. I try to go out and educate people about it. I have a mentee that when he was an undergrad in electrical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, I invited him to this power event that was being hosted at the university. He got so excited about it, he ended up going on and getting his master’s and his Ph.D. and is doing work for the Department of Energy. It was lonely, but now I try to bring people into an industry that doesn’t look like me.

Moguldom: What do the next five years look like for COI Energy Services?

SaLisa Berrien: The next five years look very bright. If you can, imagine a world where everyone just uses the energy that they needed and then they sold or traded what they didn’t use. We as a country, but also the world because we’re in five years will be global, could have access to power you can use or give to someone else. Peer-to-peer selling and trading of how you use your energy credit. Being able to trade in your credit in order to give other people around the world the opportunity to live a more dignified life. Our future is very bright.