We continue our monthly column, “Curious Minds”, created by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers to learn what influences and inspires their work.
In this column, Rose speaks with Rohan Pavuluri, founder and CEO of Upsolve, an online tool to help individuals file for bankruptcy, about the valuable lessons of start-ups, the motivating power of anger, and why we need a new civil right in America.
Rose Ors: Who are the business thinkers and practitioners outside of the legal industry that have influenced you in your work?
Rohan Pavuluri: My biggest influence is Y Combinator (YC), one of the largest and most prominent startup accelerators in Silicon Valley, and its founder, Paul Graham. I first read Graham’s essays on startups and their impact on society when I was a freshman in college. Those essays had a profound effect on me. They made me excited about launching a startup that had impact.
When my co-founder and I got the idea for Upsolve, we applied to YC. In fact, we applied and were rejected multiple times before being accepted into their three-month start-up school in 2019.
The three months we spent at Y Combinator dramatically changed the direction of Upsolve. They helped us focus on creating educational content. During the three-month period at YC we wrote a series of articles on bankruptcy, including the primer, How to File for Bankruptcy. Today, thanks to YC, we think of ourselves as an education non-profit — not just an online app.
Rose Ors: What finally got you accepted at Y Combinator?
Rohan Pavuluri: I think a large part of a startup’s success is learning fast and adjusting course. Each time we were rejected by Y Combinator, we took their feedback and applied it. For example, they were concerned about our ability to achieve scale. We took their concern to heart and found how we could reach consumers at scale: create content that would appear prominently in Google search results. We then went back to Y Combinator, made our pitch, and got in.
Rose Ors: Are there others who have influenced you?
Rohan Pavuluri: Yes, Hannah Calhoon of Blue Ridge Labs, which is a New York-based incubator that provides space and funding for startups that are working on tech-enabled solutions to mitigate economic inequality in New York.
Hannah, who was then the Managing Director of Blue Ridge Labs, was the first person to take a bet on me. When I was in my sophomore year at Harvard, I sent her an email asking for a free desk at the Lab during the summer. I explained that I wanted to spend the time figuring out how to tackle an area of poverty law with technology. That’s all I had, and she still gave me the desk.
From Hannah I learned about user research — the importance of talking with users to deeply understand them and their core problems. My co-founder, a bankruptcy attorney, and I took her advice. In our first year in business we operated as a traditional legal services non-profit where people came into our office and we helped them through the process of filing for bankruptcy. We even went to bankruptcy court with them. Taking each step of the bankruptcy process with our clients gave us the user research we needed to feel confident about building a tech solution.
Rose Ors: What books have influenced you in your work?
Rohan Pavuluri: There are two books. The first is Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. While reading Stevenson’s book, two things stood out to me. First, I was moved by how Stevenson found his calling, to which he has dedicated more than 30 years of his life. His steadfast commitment is something I deeply admire. Second, I was inspired by how Stevenson transformed the Equal Justice Initiative into an organization that offers not only direct services, but also advocacy.
The other book is Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel. This book is a classic and anybody who is thinking about starting a company should read it. It helped me understand why starting my own organization is one of the highest leverage ways that a young person can take to make a positive impact on the world.
Rose Ors: What motivated you to start Upsolve?
Rohan Pavuluri: Anger. An anger born after spending a summer interacting with low-income people who could not afford a lawyer to help them with their bankruptcies. Nor could they afford the legal fees — I call them poll taxes — which were required to pay to access their basic rights. I saw how these people suffered in this system of “justice.”
My summer experience brought me a moral clarity that the way that our legal system has developed fails to provide a way for low-income people to fight for their rights in court. It’s an incredible injustice. At Upsolve, the unique lens we have is bringing technology to address this civil rights injustice. The result is that we’ve grown into the largest non-profit in America for bankruptcy.
Rose Ors: Where did you get your most creative ideas?
Rohan Pavuluri: Our Upsolve users. Every Tuesday from 5 to 7 pm, I hold virtual office hours and talk to a handful of users. I have conversations in 15-minute increments with anybody who signs up to chat. From time to time I also do customer service emails as another way to stay close to users. Finally, we have a Facebook group of a few thousand users that we recently launched to better keep in touch with users and get new ideas.
Rose Ors: What’s a key, big picture question facing the legal industry?
Rohan Pavuluri: The legal industry must recognize that people can’t afford lawyers for poverty law areas. If you’re evicted from your home, if you are sued because you have too much consumer debt, if you need to file for bankruptcy, it is a grave mistake to assume that low-income people can pay for a lawyer. The statistics prove it — more than 4-in-5 low-income families can’t access their basic civil legal rights because then can’t get the legal help they need.
We need to empower these families. We need a new civil right in America — the right of individuals to safely solve their legal problems without a lawyer.