Blog Image // Future Leaders: SaLisa Berrien on Building for Energy Equity
Mar 3, 2022

Future Leaders: SaLisa Berrien on Building for Energy Equity

Samantha Shankman

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The Future Leaders campaign, in partnership with TripActions LiquidTM, highlights Black female founders who are sharing their stories of creating small businesses. Their stories are appearing on the TripActions blog and Instagram Live. The winner will receive a $5,000 Liquid card.

Hear more from COI Energy founder SaLisa in conversation with TripActions Head of DEI on Friday, March 4, at 1:30 pm PST / 4:30 pm EST on Instagram Live @TripActions, learn more about the Future Leaders Campaign by TripActions Liquid,, and vote for the winner before Friday, March 11!

COI Energy founder & CEO SaLisa Berrien is on a mission to eliminate energy waste and repurpose it for good in the United States. This deep-seated purpose to create energy equity was born from her own experiences as a child.

SaLisa was raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania and attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she received a degree in mechanical engineering before returning to the Lehigh Valley to work for the electric utility company Pennsylvania Power and Light. Her friends questioned her decision to work for a utility.

“You’re an engineer, you should be doing something that’s sexy,” they told SaLisa. But she had a personal reason for wanting this job.

“As a kid, my family couldn’t always pay the electric bill, and I remember when the utility company would come and reconnect our power. It did something for me—it restored my dignity. So I always saw utility workers as heroes and I wanted to go back and be one of those heroes for other people in communities like mine,” SaLisa gracefully explains. It was a subconscious decision that she only really recognized as people began to ask more frequent questions about the purpose behind her journey.

“I connected the dots between what happened as a kid and living in energy poverty, and how that helped navigate me to the energy industry,” she says. She interned at a utility company in college and then worked at three different utilities before joining her first startup in Boston.

New Opportunities In Startups

“Working at a startup was an amazing experience for me. I had never seen anything like it. They had all the perks of a startup, including in-office massages, games, and more. I thought, ‘This is different but really amazing’ I had a blank canvas and I was able to paint it any color I wanted. I could draw my own design,” explain SaLisa, who decided to do just that…with great success. The startup went from having no market share in New York to being number one in the market.

“I fell in love with this whole startup ecosystem and decided to never go back to big corporate. I loved the energy of just being able to go out and solve problems. As an engineer, that's what we love doing, and that's what the startup ecosystem gave me. Now here we are today.”

COI Energy was born because of a gap that SaLisa saw in the marketplace. Utilities and even the private sector were missing the mark and not delivering what her customers were requesting. SaLisa felt customers were asking for one thing and receiving something else. COI Energy is on a mission to help businesses eliminate energy waste—and improve lives in the process.

COI Energy gives its business customers a fast, simple, and cost-effective way to drive efficiency in their buildings, reduce their carbon footprint, and do good by repurposing energy waste to support marginalized communities by giving them equitable access to clean energy resources.

“That last part is most important to me, because my family needed that and we didn't have it. We were living in the dark here in the United States of America,” says SaLisa.

“I really believe that to whom much is given, much is required. I believe it’s my responsibility to make this space better than I found it.”

Joys & Challenges

SaLisa explains how businesses alone waste $55 billion dollars of energy every year in the U.S.. Then, on the other side, there are families who can’t afford to pay their electric bills.

“There's so much we can do with that $55,” says SaLisa, who helps these businesses reduce their waste and empowers them to repurpose it in ways that will help others. This process includes helping balance the electric grid, reducing a company’s carbon footprint, and assist marginalized communities by ensuring energy equity. Underserved families gain access to resources that will help them improve efficiency in their homes, improve air quality, and help them save money on their utility bills.

“It gives me joy every day to wake up and figure out how to continue to solve these problems,” says SaLisa. “What helps is having an amazing team, because you can't do it on your own. You can come up with all these ideas and say, ‘I want to do this and I want to solve that,’ but it's really about the team of people you bring together and having them be just as passionate about trying to solve these big-world problems.”

The challenges come in many forms; one of them is funding, especially as a Black female founder. COI Energy is a venture-backed startup, but finding the right resources to help build the business is part of the work.

COI Energy started inside an incubator at the University of South Florida; SaLisa bootstrapped the business for the first 2.5 years with more than $300,000 of her own funds. Her family questioned her decision to funnel her income from a corporate job into the mission.

“I knew that there was something bigger out there,” she says, “which was solving this problem for future generations to come and creating a legacy that makes the world a better place for all of us.”

Despite the challenges, SaLisa always found a way to keep the business going until it was a viable business.

“One thing that I'm super-proud of is that my employees have always been paid on time. I always figured it out.”

SaLisa believed that when you’re doing the right things, money chases you. She’s had people in her circle who were once doubtful come back and remark at the growth she achieved. Her goal is to make COI Energy the market leader, provide her customers with a fast, simple, cost-effective solution, and ultimately create a transactive peer-to-peer marketplace.

COI Energy has plans to triple its sales over last year as well as double or triple its team while rolling out new features.

“Our platform drives efficiency on all levels. If you know that you're wasting energy and you can get paid for that waste, it's going to drive you to be more efficient,” says SaLisa. “That drives the whole ecosystem to optimize because you can now sell your waste to another business that needs more power. That business now becomes more efficient, which helps the electric grid become more efficient. The need to build more power plants is deferred, because people are now utilizing their excess to sell within a marketplace. When you look at that whole business model, it changes the way people think about energy today, from a one-to-one relationship to a whole network where everyone is optimized for efficiency. It’s a completely different approach.”

A Community Approach

In sharing her story, SaLisa emphasized how important it is for other small businesses—especially minority-owned, women-owned businesses—to believe in themselves more than they ever did before.

“It’s not an easy road, and it gets lonely as a founder. You have to believe in what you’re doing and have a passion for your purpose—then you can overcome just about anything,” she says.

“You're going to get a lot of no’s. You may not get the investments that you want. But you can't let that kill your spirit. You have to believe that a door is going to open or you're going to have windows to climb through, but it will happen. Always believe in yourself and you can overcome the challenges. It’s important to have determination.”

Hear more from COI Energy founder & CEO SaLisa in conversation with TripActions Head of DEI on Friday, March 4, at 1:30 pm PST / 4:30 pm EST on Instagram Live @TripActions and learn more about the Future Leaders Campaign by TripActions Liquid.

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