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Columns

How To Change the World and Have Harvard Pay For It

By Steve S. Li
By Nicholas S. Brown, Contributing Opinion Writer
Nicholas S. Brown ’23 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

Harvard has a yellow brick road. If you want to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, Harvard can help you do that. You need only follow the path (of course with a lot of personal effort).

Upsolve, the nonprofit I work at, like a number of other organizations founded at Harvard, got its start when our cofounder Rohan Pavuluri ’18 found this path. As a sophomore researching at Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab with Professor James Greiner, Rohan learned two things that would change his life: first, that millions of low-income Americans can’t access their basic legal rights because they can’t afford a lawyer, and second, that bankruptcy is a powerful tool that can give a financial fresh start to low-income people trapped in debt from medical bills, job loss, and predatory loans, but few can afford $1,500 for an attorney to tell a court they are broke.

Passionate about helping low-income people overcome crushing debt and access their rights, Rohan set out to create an online web app to assist people with the bankruptcy process.

Along Rohan’s journey, he encountered a remarkable array of the University’s people and resources that joined him to make Upsolve possible. Courses such as Engineering Sciences 95r: “Startup R & D” taught at Harvard’s School Of Engineering And Applied Sciences (which he took three times), Democracy, Politics and Institutions 663: “Tech and Innovation in Government” taught at Harvard Kennedy School, Government 2430: “Data Science to Save the World”, and Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science” were all crucial in creating Upsolve. This doesn’t include the multiple independent studies Rohan did, each with faculty advisors, on various aspects of how to start Upsolve. Additionally, faculty and fellows at Harvard Business School and HKS gave their time to discuss Upsolve’s development, and HLS Professor James Greiner and HKS lecturer Nick Sinai even joined as advisors.

The Harvard iLab provided space and Harvard awarded Upsolve grants in rapid succession totaling over $200,000 of seed funding, all while Rohan was an undergraduate. Upsolve received a Harvard Institute of Politics Gov 2.0 grant ($5,000); a Harvard Center for Public Interest Careers Liman Fellowship ($4,000); a Harvard i3 Innovation Challenge grant ($10,000); a Harvard President's Innovation Challenge grand prize ($75,000); an Access to Justice Tech Fellowship that paid an HLS graduate to work at Upsolve for a year ($80,000); and a Pforzheimer Public Service Fellowship ($30,000). Even more, every year since Rohan graduated, Upsolve has received a Harvard Mindich Service Fellow each summer, which was how I first joined Upsolve and became passionate about using tech to increase access to justice.

Today, Harvard’s initial investment in Upsolve has seen a massive return with $350 million of debt relieved for low-income Americans and recognition of Harvard’s critical role in Upsolve’s founding covered in numerous major news outlets.

Upsolve is certainly not the only organization to incubate at and receive funding from Harvard. In fact, Upsolve isn’t even the only Harvard-funded nonprofit that uses tech to help low-income people access their rights for free — there is Immigrationhelp.org, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals applications, and Justfix, for fighting landlord harassment and neglected housing conditions.

Outside of the tech-enhanced access to justice space, Harvard has supported a number of exciting organizations, including personal favorites of mine: Coding it Forward, which places students with tech backgrounds in impact roles in government; Umbilizer, which produces portable ventilators for 10 percent of the traditional cost that could expand access around the world; and Breaktime, which is working to break the cycle of young adult homelessness in Boston through purposeful transitional employment.

If you’re interested in starting a social impact organization at Harvard, I recommend looking into the programs discussed above to find community, mentorship, and funding as well as other programs such as the Cheng Fellowship, which Breaktime cofounder Connor Schoen ’20 wrote was a “life-changing experience for me personally and a game-changing experience for Breaktime as an organization” in an email.

Other programs to consider include the iLab Venture Incubation Program, the Undergraduate Technology Innovation Fellowship, the Harvard Graduate School of Education Innovation & Ventures in Education Pitch Competition, the Harvard Club of Boston Summer Fellowship, and the Phillips Brooks House Association Priscilla Chan Stride Service Program, all of which helped Breaktime launch. If you’re a graduate student you can also apply to the Social Enterprise Track of the HBS New Venture Competition. Organizations like Breaktime have also found support from clubs such as Harvard Undergraduate Consulting on Business and the Environment (which donated more than $10,000), Harvard College Consulting Group, HBS’s Consulting for Impact, and Harvard Tech for Social Good, among other clubs.

With the extraordinary amount of support you can find at Harvard and a number of leading nonprofits having started here, clearly Harvard is, as Rohan has said, “one of the best incubators in the world, especially if you are trying to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.”

Yet too often this path is the one less traveled.

And of course, Harvard can do even more to support passion-struck students in launching impact organizations. Harvard can start by adding more road signs and by widening the road.

For example, much like there are comprehensive information sessions covering every summer research opportunity, there could be information sessions covering every social impact program, competition, and resource that Harvard provides.

Without a coordinated center for social impact programs at Harvard, students can be disoriented, wondering whether their project belongs at the iLab, CPIC, Cheng, IOP, or PBHA. More concerningly, the resources are so spread out; as Connor notes in his email to me, “you could be a social innovator and go through Harvard without knowing about the Cheng fellowship even though it's such a great program.”

Beyond helping students navigate resources and programs, Harvard can simply create more winners. Why should Harvard’s President’s Innovation Challenge only select five grand prize recipients and five runner-ups each year to receive significant seed funding when all 25 of this year’s finalists are so inspiring?

That said, if you’re willing to do the legwork to follow Harvard's yellow brick road to launching a social impact organization, you may find at the end of the journey that, in many ways, there’s no place like Harvard.

Nicholas S. Brown ’23 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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