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Engineering entrepreneur finds home in USF incubator

SaLisa Berrien operates her energy consulting company, COI Energy, out of the University of South Florida’s Tampa Bay Technology Incubator.
SaLisa Berrien operates her energy consulting company, COI Energy, out of the University of South Florida’s Tampa Bay Technology Incubator.
Published Apr. 25, 2017

SaLisa Berrien moved to Tampa just a few years ago, but she's long been familiar with the Sunshine State, thanks to summer visits as a child with Polk County relatives. At that time, she remembers hating the annual trek because it was "hot and full of bugs." These days, the Allentown, Pa., native still finds Florida hot, but far from boring. The mechanical engineer-turned-entrepreneur is having the time of her life building up her energy consulting company, COI Energy.

Based at the University of South Florida's Tampa Bay Technology Incubator, Berrien is on a mission to make it a leader in the energy industry.

Berrien, an MBA graduate of Philadelphia's St. Joseph University, recently spoke to Times correspondent Kenya Woodard about achieving success as a woman in a STEM field, philanthropy and how Florida became cool.

Before graduating with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, you thought an engineer was someone who fixed trains. How did you, an African American woman from a blue-collar family, get pulled into a field dominated by white men?

I had my daughter very young; I was in high school. I went from being an honor student and cheerleader to just shutting down. In my junior year, a teacher saw that I was doing well in math. She asked me what I wanted to do for a career. I told her a lawyer or broadcaster. She says "we have enough lawyers in the world. Why don't you consider being an engineer?"

She called a city engineer and had me shadow him for a day. That conversation with her was 30 minutes that changed my life. Shortly after, I was accepted into a gifted program and studied engineering through graduation. I took my daughter with me to college and I finished in four years.

Your company, COI Energy, provides customers with cost-effective energy solutions. What steps did you take to prepare for the leap from employee to boss?

I've been in the industry 25 years, beginning in a company's tech marketing department. But I always knew I wanted to do my own thing. The idea for that was set when I worked for ConEd and I was hard-pressed to find minority contractors to hire. So I started my consulting business in 2006. My first contract was with a major national courier delivery service. Then Sept. 11 happened and everything was put on hold because it wasn't certain if we were going to war.

Shortly after, Enron happened and companies didn't want to work with anyone related to energy. People just weren't trusting anyone. The industry was looking at Enron as number one and it turned out it was false. I also took a job as director of Lehigh Carbon Community College's business incubator. I did that for five years before I looked at going back into corporate. By then, demand response was big in energy. I took a job at a start-up called EnerNOC, a company that offers energy intelligence software. It was my first exposure to the startup industry. Now, I've got startup fever. I can never work for a big corporation again.

So how did startup fever work out for you?

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I worked with large industrial and commercial customers getting them acclimated to the program. I ended up leading my company. Because I had an engineering background, I knew that to grow a sustainable business you don't go after Mom and Pop, you only go after the behemoths. I call them Home Runs. But that first quarter, I didn't make my goal. My boss told me to refocus on the small businesses. I did that but I continued to nurture those Home Run relationships. I eventually exceeded my goal the next year. Then I recognized the value I could bring to the companies and that my customers will follow me.

At my last corporation, I was closing deals in four months when it was taking everyone else two years. But the company was trying to sell customers a Toyota when they wanted a Lexus. I couldn't continue to do that. So I applied for my trademark and last February, I started my company. I've used my own funds to finance the company. I went to banks but didn't get anyone to fund us. I took out my investments, borrowed from my 401K. I took my savings — everything — and I put it out there. It's been a big sacrifice and at times it's been scary but my heart is so at peace.

You're a big believer in giving back. How do you pay it forward for future engineers of color and women entrepreneurs?

In 1995, I started a nonprofit called STRIVE, Inc. It is a youth organization that offers scholarships and encourages leadership development in STEM. STRIVE is my way of giving back. We've been around for 22 years. We work with Allentown and Bethlethem, Pa., students and here in rural Polk County. Our Polk County students attend conferences and compete in robotics competitions. We work to expose them to different facets of society so that when they get older, it won't be a surprise.

I also helped start the Karl H. Lewis Engineering Impact Alumni Endowed Fund at the University of Pittsburgh to help black students graduate with an engineering degree. It's named after my advisor who encouraged me to stay in engineering when I wanted to quit and study education. I'm super excited about that because I really believe that to whom much is given, much is required. In the summer, I host a conference on Martha's Vineyard under the COI Ladder Institute that focuses on empowering women to be their best in business and in life. We help people who want to get out and move forward. It if wasn't for my circle, I wouldn't be where I am now. They challenge me, keep me honest. I didn't get here by myself.

Until recently, you were commuting between Florida and Pennsylvania. What is it about the Tampa Bay area that convinced you to settle here permanently?

When I sent my daughter down here for high school, I started to develop a network of people and tried to understand the culture. And I found folks in Florida were very welcoming and supportive. I developed some very close friendships. These people will go the extra mile for you. You don't find that everywhere. Florida is a family kind of place. In Tampa, I like the fact that it's a growing technology hub. It's really a Silicon Valley in the Tampa Bay area. I'm asked all the time, 'Why don't you go to California or Atlanta?' And I say, I see the resources in Tampa. I want to be part of the story.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com.