5 Questions with Gov 2.0 Grant Winner Rohan Pavuluri
July 8, 2016
Originally published in the Huffington Post
Rohan Pavuluri ‘18 is the 2016 IOP Gov 2.0 Grant recipient. A statistics concentrator, he is a co-founder of Upsolve.org, a non-profit organization created to help low-income New Yorkers navigate the process of bankruptcy in order to gain a second chance at sustainable financial livelihood. We asked him about the work he’s doing this summer with his grant and about the upcoming presidential election.
Tell us about the work you’ve started at Upsolve.org.
Legal aid clinics turn away more people than they can help because there aren’t enough free lawyers to go around. To close this gap, we’re using technology to help people navigate the legal system on their own. The Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP) at Harvard Law School, a team I’m involved with on campus, has produced innovative legal self-help packets to rigorously test whether self-help works. At Upsolve.org, we aim to scale this academic research.
We’ve created a digital product, using insights and content from the FDRP, to streamline and simplify the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. After a summer of observing how people use our product, we hope to take steps towards automating the Chapter 7 process for people who can’t get a lawyer.
We received our initial funding by winning the Harvard Innovation Challenge and the Harvard Institute of Politics’ Gov 2.0 Grant. We’ve also been lucky to receive support from Yale Law School’s Arthur Liman Public Interest Program and the Robin Hood Foundation’s Blue Ridge Labs.
What is design thinking and how did you use the process in your work at Upsolve.org?
In my mind, design thinking is a fancy term for common sense. It’s the idea that before you solve a problem, you must understand the daily lives of the people who face it. In many ways, sociologists and anthropologists were the original design thinkers.
At Upsolve.org, we believe the most important part of our work is understanding the pain points of people who file for bankruptcy. We’ve spent countless hours sitting by their side as they use our product. This stems from one of our core values. Legal services need to be radically redesigned from the perspective of people with legal problems—not the lawyers who work for them.
What has surprised you most in your Upsolve.org work so far?
I’ve been most surprised by how complicated it is for someone to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on their own. You have to go online and individually print out roughly 20 different forms. It’s hard to figure out which forms to print because they’re mixed in with forms you don’t need. If you’re lucky enough to print all the right forms, good luck understanding terms like “unsecured non-priority debt.” And then get mentally prepared to list every single thing you own, earn, and pay. It’s a miracle anyone has ever filed for bankruptcy on their own.
Last year you served as a Director’s Intern at the Albright Stonebridge Group. How did that experience inspire you to think about innovation and entrepreneurship?
I loved the Albright Stonebridge Group because the firm’s culture enabled me to pursue my own projects revolving around data and technology in an unfamiliar context. I knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurial again this summer—this time, starting totally from scratch. For me, there’s nothing more fun, exciting, or meaningful than building something out of nothing to help people.
With all eyes on the 2016 presidential election, what would you hope to hear from candidates on the issue of bankruptcy and access to equitable legal services?
Bankruptcy is the most remarkable yet least used form of government assistance. We believe filing for bankruptcy is no different from getting a tax deduction. But many people don’t get a fresh start through bankruptcy because of social stigma, complex forms, and lack of awareness. I’d like to see candidates invest more time into thinking about how technology can transform the delivery of government services. I also haven’t heard a single candidate address the fact that 8 out of 10 low-income Americans cannot access a free lawyer for their civil legal problems. This needs to change.