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“Given how complex [the world’s] problems are, there is no one person or company that’s going to solve all of them. The only chance we have is if as many people as possible are engaged and feel empowered to be part of the solutions.”
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“Innovation Lives Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and Other Lessons from Tech Entrepreneur Jessica O. Matthews

By IHI Multimedia Team | Friday, November 13, 2020
Innovation Lives Between a Rock and a Hard Place Photo by Jeremy Bishop | Unsplash

What can health care improvers learn from a tech entrepreneur? When she’s Jessica O. Matthews, quite a lot.

Matthews is the Founder & CEO of Uncharted Power, a renewable power company that she started when she was 22 years old that specializes in harnessing the energy from motion. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Matthews has earned two degrees from Harvard, holds 11 patents, was given the Scientist of the Year award by the Harvard Foundation, and has graced the cover of Forbes twice.

But her impressive resume is not the only reason she will be a keynote speaker at the IHI Forum 2020 (December 6–9, 2020). Being an entrepreneur in the tech and energy sectors, in which few women or people of color are in the C-Suite, Matthews has developed insights about leadership, innovation, and equity that are relevant for those dedicated to transforming health and health care worldwide. The following are some of the lessons she’s learned:

  • Innovation requires a willingness to fail. Reimagining what’s possible — whether it’s in the tech world or health care — means prioritizing learning from failure and redefining what it means to succeed. “Innovation lives between a rock and a hard place,” Matthews has said. “If you’re doing something innovative, that means no one’s done it before. You have to be comfortable with falling and failing and getting back up.”
  • Experience with struggle can become an asset. Matthews has noted that “being the daughter of immigrants, being a Black woman . . . these things have presented circumstances which added some degree of uncertainty to my life.” However, she has turned her comfort with ambiguity and lifelong experience facing challenges to her advantage. “I’ve been training for the moments of doing very hard things,” she has said. “So, what’s another daunting thing? My life is full of impossible situations.”
  • Representation matters. Just as you can’t have quality without equity in health care, innovation can’t happen without disrupting the status quo. For this reason, Matthews chose to locate Uncharted Power’s headquarters in Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City known for its diversity, and to ensure that many of the engineering staff are women and people of color. “In our neighborhood, we are exposed to many different types of people, all living their lives in various ways,” Matthews has said. “And it is this natural immersion that we experience each day that helps to influence the development of our company’s core technology. It’s important that we think about diversity not as charity, but as something that’s good for business.” For example, Matthews has asserted that including women at the table has potential benefits for all. “From prioritizing well-lit streets to considering how to better navigate public transportation with baby strollers,” she has said, “imagine how much easier life would be if women were involved in designing public spaces and the built environment.”
  • Leaders should welcome disagreement and debate. Given that Uncharted Power is developing clean, safe, and low-cost technology that turns kinetic energy into electricity, Matthews tries never to forget that her work thrives on disrupting the status quo. This includes encouraging her team to question her ideas and decisions. She tells them, “Put together your thoughts logically and come back at me. I want you to convince me that I’m wrong. Find holes in my argument. Find the gaps in my thinking.” Matthews believes this kind of give and take is essential for the success of her company.

Matthews also sees including a range of voices and perspectives as the key to tackling society’s thorniest issues. “Given how complex [the world’s] problems are," Matthews has explained, “there is no one person or company that’s going to solve all of them. The only chance we have is if as many people as possible are engaged and feel empowered to be part of the solutions.”

Jo Ann Endo, MSW, is IHI’s Senior Managing Editor, Digital Content & Blog.

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Sessions about Leadership are part of the IHI Forum 2020 (December 6–9, 2020).

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