We use technology to provide bankruptcy assistance and financial education to low-income Americans across the country at scale.
I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
I am over 18 years of age
My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States
Where are you making a difference?
Across the United States. Currently in 15 states.
Focus Areas (required)
Business & Social Enterprise
Development & Prosperity
June / 18 / 2016
Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.
Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working towards the next level of expansion)
Website or social media URL(s) (optional)
1.Founding Story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed.
Rohan just graduated from Harvard, where he was a researcher at the law school's Access to Justice Lab. He was working on physical packets for people to get through the bankruptcy process before realizing that people should be able to use a digital product to help themselves. So he set out to create bankruptcy and financial education "in a box". Jonathan was a bankruptcy attorney for 10 years, and he realized that millions of low-income Americans were priced out of the court system. He decided to quit his job in corporate law and start a tech nonprofit that would make bankruptcy and financial education free and easy to access for everyone.
2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?
We will help 20 million low-income Americans wipe away their debts using Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Personal bankruptcy is one of America's most important social safety nets, but it's inaccessible because of complex law and regulations. And lawyers cost too much money for almost everyone who needs it.
3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.
We're making the technology tool that allows these 20 million Americans to do the process themselves without needing to be represented by a lawyer. And we're educating people on bankruptcy alternatives and giving them budgeting help to make sure they make the most of their fresh start. No consumer technology product ever has provided the same average financial ROI per user as Upsolve: $40,000 for 3 hours of use. We spun out of a five-year RCT at Harvard Law School. We’re the first Turbo Tax for bankruptcy.
4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.
Linda’s 45 years old and she lives right off the C train in Brooklyn. Two years ago, Linda was doing just fine. She had a staff job at a local public school and a steady stream of income. But in early 2016, tragedy struck. Linda got into a bad car accident and broke her leg. She lost her job during her long recovery. As a result, she fell into over $30,000 in debt. Suddenly, the things she took for granted, the food on her table, the house over her head, came into question. She started getting calls at all hours of the day from debt collectors and she couldn’t see a way out.
The government is supposed to have a lifeline for Linda. It’s called Chapter 7 bankruptcy. It erases debt from sudden financial shocks like job loss, medical illness, and divorce. It’s a powerful poverty fighting tool.
Through our product, however, Linda was able to get back on her feet and get a job.
5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?
We will help 20 million low-income Americans buried in debt from medical illness, job loss, and divorce obtain a fresh start using Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Personal bankruptcy is one of America's most important social safety nets, but it's inaccessible because of complex law and regulations. And lawyers cost too much money for almost everyone who needs it. We're making the technology tool that allows these 20 million Americans to do the process themselves. The process involves rigorous screening.
5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:
age - elder
6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?
There are for-profit and nonprofit bankruptcy lawyers, but they don’t scale and they dont provide the necessary financial education. Regulations stop for-profit companies from being consumer-facing like us because it’s illegal to charge the end user for a software product that automates bankruptcy. There are a few software companies that build products for bankruptcy attorneys and some predatory companies that charge users for access to the fillable PDFs the government provides for free. But no nonprofit has built software to tackle this problem because they don’t have technical expertise. We
7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?
In the last 5 months alone, 1200 people have used our product to see if they qualify for bankruptcy and 250 people have entered our pipeline. We've erased over $5,000,000 in debt.
Our favorite stories: the elderly woman who gave us mugs with our initials because she loved our product so much, the woman who sent us a beautiful card, and, of course, the elderly man who sent us a $100 check one year after he filed and got back on his feet.
8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?
We’re looking at 3 channels to find folks in financial distress who need our help: (1) tax prep sites that help 3.3 million people each year, (2) bankruptcy court websites that direct 30 million Americans each year, and (3) fintech companies who have millions of users in financial distress. We recently signed an LOI with Lending Tree.
8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?
Franchising, Licensing, Accreditation
Large Scale Partnerships
Lobbying, Policy Change
9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?
We are funded by a mix of government contracts (almost $200,000/year in recurring revenue from the Legal Services Corporation), leading philanthropists (Robin Hood, Public Welfare Foundation, ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt's foundation), and earned revenue from licensing our software to paying legal aid organizations for roughly $5,000 a year (see partnerships section below). In the past 6 months, we have onboarded 15 paying customers and hope to have 100 by end of next year.
10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?
Jonathan Petts is in charge of automating the legal aspects of the product. Jonathan has ten years of experience as a bankruptcy lawyer. Upsolve's CTO Mark Hansen has years of experience building tech for low-income folks. Rohan Pavuluri is our product manager. Rohan spent two years testing the paper prototype of our product with Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab. Finally, Kristin Turner is our head of partnerships. Kristin recently graduated from Harvard Law. They are all full-time.
Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)
White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French)
Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian, etc)
Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani)
Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)
Communities of color
How did you hear about this challenge?
Program Design Clarity
Our most important activity is generating our client’s bankruptcy forms oline. We also answer client questions by phone, email, and chat. Once the completed forms are generated, they’re reviewed by an Upsolve attorney. This process takes clients 3-4 hours and Upsolve staff under 30 minutes. Our use of technology leads to a 10x reduction of the time and cost associated with serving each client.
Approach to financial wellbeing: does your project focus on creating financial wellbeing through innovating on any of the following?
education / literacy
If you marked "Other" in the question above, please specify:
Innovation type: Please select which of the following types of innovation best characterize your work
Process innovation (execution of a new or considerably improved production or delivery method)
Partnerships in detail: tell us about your partnerships that enhance your approach.
We have partnerships with 16 legal aid nonprofits in 15 states, including Bay Area Legal Aid, Legal Action of Wisconsin, Nevada Legal Services, and Step Up to Justice. Each of these brick and mortar nonprofits pays us approximately $5,000 a year to use our software to multiply the number of low-income clients they're able to serve with a fresh start. We are also just beginning a partnership with the CFE Fund to help clients in their financial empowerment centers across the country.
If you won the Unlocking ₵hange Challenge, how would you invest the prize money of $50,000?
We'd expand our service to all 50 states and expand our pre and post-bankruptcy financial education resources to help users not just get a fresh start, but also make the most of their fresh start.
Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions has the project received?
Winner of Harvard Innovation Challenge Grand Prize, Yale Law School Liman Fellowship, Harvard Institute of Politics Gov 2.0 Grant, & Blue Ridge Labs Catalyst. Also Rohan Pavuluri was Forbes 30 Under 30 for Law, OZY Genius Award, & Cafe 100. And Rohan and Jonathan Petts were both recognized by FastCase 50 as two of the 50 “trailblazers and architects of the future of law and legal technology".