by Jack L. Daniel, For New Pittsburgh Courier
In her words, SaLisa Berrien began her life’s journey “about a mile behind” from where most others started. Fortunately, as she persevered, she was the beneficiary of critically important mentoring and the opportunity to enroll at the University of Pittsburgh.
While growing up with her parents and four siblings in Bethlehem, PA, Berrien’s father worked at Bethlehem Steel. Their family income was such that the children qualified for the public school’s reduced lunch program. At 15-years-old, when she became a mother, significant others discouraged her from considering college and, instead, urged her to “get a job and take care of her child.” At the same time, Berrien received the unwavering, enthusiastic support of a female high school teacher who, according to Berrien, “believed in me more than I believed in myself. She strongly encouraged me to not only enroll in college but also pursue an engineering program. I didn’t know what an engineer did until she contacted the Allentown City Engineer who permitted me to shadow him for a day and, during the summer, he provided me with an internship.
Jack L. Daniel
At 18-years-old, Berrien graduated from William Allen High School. That year, 1987, happened to be Pitt’s 200th anniversary and, as a first-generation student, she was admitted to Pitt’s School of Engineering. With a significant opportunity provided by the Engineering Impact Program (EIP), she attended summer classes before her first semester began.
During her first day of EIP classes, she arrived with her toddler daughter, learned that her daughter could not be in the classroom, and her father took her child home. Still, after her sophomore year and having moved into a North Oakland apartment, circumstances sometimes required her to take her daughter to her Thermodynamics as well as other classes. Doing what that point in her life’s journey demanded, she stated, “I did not ask permission, I just showed up with my daughter and the Professor never complained.”
While pursuing her Engineering degree at Pitt, Berrien faced more than her share of microaggressions. One of the most flagrant incidents involved a White male professor who intended to fail her in a required course. Because Berrien had knowledge of how her examination answers compared with those of other students in her study group who had a “B” average,” Berrien took her complaints to Engineering Professor Dr. Karl Lewis who, in turn, contacted me because I handled academic integrity cases for the Provost’s Office. Dr. Lewis and I arranged for other professors to read Berrien’s examinations and they concluded that she too was doing above average work. When these findings were brought to her Professor’s attention, he reluctantly agreed to “give” her a final grade of “C.”
After earning her Mechanical Engineering degree from Pitt in 1991, Berrien later earned an Executive MBA from St. Joseph’s University in 1999. As her career blossomed, she worked for several energy related companies, three electric utilities, and four clean tech startup companies. Then she decided to create COI Energy, a digital energy management platform that detects and eliminates energy waste, to address a gap in the energy ecosystem. COI’s current valuation cap is $18 million. Recently, her company won a $500 thousand clean technology competition to help the state of New York achieve its clean energy goals related to fighting climate change.
Through all of her professional successes, Berrien has been a prime example of “lifting as she climbed.” In 1995, she founded the nonprofit STRIVE which is a STEM leadership development program serving urban and rural youth in Florida and Pennsylvania. STRIVE serves approximately 25 youth at each site on a weekly basis and, since inception, has served over 1000 youth. Her foundation has also given high school students more than 50 scholarships, ranging from $100 to $5000 dollars, to pursue post-secondary education. In 2004, Berrien established the Dr. Karl H. Lewis Engineering Impact Alumni Endowed fund which provides a three-year scholarship (sophomore through senior year) to Black engineering students. With the support of fellow alumni, the Endowment has funded four scholarships to date.
In 2019, Berrien was elected to the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees which provided her with yet another opportunity to give back. Asked to comment about her journey from enrolling at Pitt as a first-generation college student to becoming a member of the Pitt Board of Trustees, Berrien responded, “When I look at my life journey, Pitt was fundamental to my success. The challenges I experienced prepared me for the real world; helped me become a better problem solver; taught me to look deeper into things; and instead of taking ‘no’ for an answer, try to figure out how to overcome barriers. Sure, I experienced my share of obstacles related to being a Black woman but, in the final analysis, my circle of influence helped me ‘turn lemons into lemonade.’
As a Pitt Trustee, it is a tremendous honor to return and serve the very institution that served me so well. I want to be a part of the University’s efforts to advance the academy in ways that enable many more students like me to excel academically and, subsequently, go out into the world and make a difference. That is why, in the memory of Dr. Karl Lewis, I give back to those now trying to ‘make a way out of no way.’ For me, it’s my minimal service to develop assets like others developed in me.”
Finally, I asked Berrien to comment on the beginning of a new year and she replied, “This past year, I learned that the world is truly interconnected. If we don’t do our part to make a difference, then we are contributing to the negative spiral. In 2021, we’re all needed to make positive differences that help get the world back on track. As difficult as 2020 was for so many, I’ve been blessed beyond measure …in ways I never imagined even while experiencing personal losses from COVID. I am upbeat because my company is playing a major role in creating a better world for our children’s children to breathe easy and thrive. Hence, I end with, ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ Gone are the days of us waiting on others. We must lead in 2021!”
(Jack L. Daniel is Vice Provost and Professor Emeritus University of Pittsburgh.)