An Interview with Rohan Pavuluri and Nicholas Brown

By: Alexis Jimenez Maldonado




Rohan Pavuluri is a former Edmond J. Safra Undergraduate Fellow and Upsolve CEO and Co-founder. He graduated from Harvard College in 2018 and was named to the TIME100 Next list in 2021. He is also a member of the Legal Services Corporation’s Emerging Leaders Council, a Board Director at the National Access to Justice Center housed at Fordham Law School, and a committee member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Making Justice Accessible project. He has been recognized as Forbes 30 under 30 in the Law & Policy Category and is a TED Fellow.


Nicholas Brown is an Edmond J. Safra Undergraduate Fellow and Upsolve's former product manager. Brown is a third-year student concentrating in Social Studies. He researches distributive justice and legal representation in contemporary America. Outside the classroom, he has worked to increase access to the bankruptcy system, co-led the Harvard Review of Philosophy, and is a founding member of Harvard for Bernie and Harvard College YDSA.


Upsolve is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that started in 2016. Their mission is to help low-income families who cannot afford lawyers file bankruptcy for free, using an online web app.


This conversation happened on December 15, 2021. The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity.


Alexis Jimenez Maldonado: Rohan, you’ve been a part of the Center community since 2015 when you were an Undergraduate Fellow and Nicholas you’ve been with us since 2019 also as an Undergraduate Fellow. Can you each talk about your experience as fellows? Did you both connect through the Center?


Rohan Pavuluri: I originally met Arthur [Applbaum] when I took his freshman seminar and then applied to be a fellow. My first seminar at the Safra Center was with Arthur. I think the unique thing about the Center is how philosophy isn’t being taught in a vacuum, we learned about how these principles applied in the real world. That’s what I really valued and what informed some of the early days at Upsolve. When I was thinking about how I wanted to spend my time after college there weren’t many places at Harvard that wanted to help you think about that question deeply. In that way, that the Safra Center helped me.


Nicholas Brown: I first found out about the Center through Rohan. In my first few weeks working at Upsolve as an intern, right after my freshman year, he asked me what kind of political philosophy I was interested in because he knew that was something I was focused on. He told me about his wonderful experience at the Safra Center, and so I immediately looked it up and then I eventually ended up also taking the first seminar with Professor Applbaum.


AJM: Rohan, you founded Upsolve, which is helping thousands of low-income Americans who couldn't afford a lawyer file for bankruptcy protection for free. I’d love to hear about how Upsolve evolved during your time as a fellow.


RP: I was a fellow before I even had the idea for Upsolve. My sophomore summer I moved to New York to explore how we use technology to help low-income families access their rights when they can't afford legal fees. When you have to go it alone and navigate the legal system you are facing modern-day literacy tests in the form of complicated legal forms.


The great thing about the Safra Fellowship and Arthur as a teacher, is that he really teaches you to think independently. In a place like Harvard, where people are doing things that other people are doing and they don't think independently about on their own ideals for justice and their ideals for how they want to spend your time, that can be really challenging environment. The Safra Center really gave me the conviction to be totally independent minded.


The major thesis behind Upsolve is challenging this two hundred plus year old narrative in America that you need to go to lawyers to solve your legal problems. As long as that narrative exists, we'll never have equal rights under the law because we’ll never have enough supply of lawyers available to meet the demand for people who need it. The only way you can get equal rights under law is if you expand the supply of help available, using technology and using professionals who are vetted and trained and who are not lawyers to be able to provide advice.


[For me] there's a direct line from taking the Safra Fellowship and learning how to think independently about my own normative beliefs and then trying to apply those normative beliefs to my daily work and my calling which has become Upsolve. There’s been some relation between the two. The first version of Upsolve was a brick-and-mortar clinic in Brooklyn helping people one at a time. We’ve evolved into TurboTax for bankruptcy which has now relieved over four hundred million dollars in debt. Since then, we’ve evolved into “Khan Academy” for financial empowerment by helping people who have different financial and legal problems receive education, community, and other life changing tools that can help them overcome their debt and avoid the mistakes that might lead to financial distress. And then, the next step that we are working on right now, is using this platform and its concrete impact to have a broader and systemic change in the American legal and financial systems. That includes advocacy and bringing our users together, but also uses the other tools to make a big and historic difference. So that's what we're going for in 2022.


AJM: Nicholas, what drew you towards getting involved with Upsolve?


NB: I remember when I was first looking for what to do after my freshman year of college, I was looking through the various different fellowships you can get through the Center for Public Interest and Engaged Scholarship and there were 50 different fellowships under the Mindich Program that year. Upsolve was the program I was most interested in. I read the profile of every organization and Upsolve's was just one that really stuck with me, and I couldn't get out of my head. What really pulled me to Upsolve is this idea that the liberal democratic framework has bankruptcy law, an immensely powerful system for redress. But there is this missing link between the individual’s right and them being able to access this redress. I was thinking, what if we can somehow make it so every single person who could possibly need this tool (Upsolve) or tools like it could fit into this system as it already is and solve an immense number of problems that we currently face? I just couldn’t get this idea out of my head and so I read everything on the internet about Upsolve, which was a pretty sizeable amount at the time. And I remember I went into my interview with Rohan for the internship, I felt like I was already kind of speaking in Upsolve taglines and certain ways of framing. I've grown from my experiences at Upsolve since.


AJM: Having both been through the Center’s fellowship program, how has that experience influenced your work?


RP: Within my experience at Harvard, there are people who are deeply practical and focused on traditional routes after college, like finance and consulting. There are people who are deeply philosophical and had passions for connecting to the real world, but very theoretical. The great thing about the Undergraduate Fellowship and the people it attracts is this connection between ethics and philosophy and the real world. That to me is the amazing thing about the Safra Center.


AJM: You both seem to have been able to take the work of ethics and apply it in a very tangible way through Upsolve. How has it been applying what you learned at Harvard in the real world?"


NB: I can say that when we were studying methods for doing applied ethics with Arthur the thing that really stuck with me was that you always begin with conceptual analysis. So, you always take something that we commonly speak about, or assume, and you pull it apart and try to understand how all of it works together before you basically decide what you're going to do. And I think that the largest part of what I've learned at the Center is that when we're trying to change the world, the first thing we must do is come to understand how others are conceptualizing things that we just take for granted. Also, how we might work within those concepts to shift them. I think an example of that would be when I'm trying to convince people to support Upsolve and build a partnership. For example, if someone is intrinsically opposed to bankruptcy, I'll try to pull apart what they’re saying to uncover why this is the case? Sometimes they don't fully understand what bankruptcy can do for people trapped in crushing debt. And through the first step of conceptual analysis, we can better persuade and shift narratives.


RP: I think Harvard was the best place to start something like Upsolve, because there was so much flexibility to take independent studies and they also have so much funding available and so many professors. You see such an amazing government school, business school, law school, etc., in addition to the undergraduate program and all these other affiliate centers. The combination of all of these is just the best resource that anyone could ask for when starting a social impact organization. I really look at Harvard as an incubator.


AJM: Rohan, in a 2017 op-ed in the Crimson, “How to Avoid the Well-Trodden Path,” you discussed the pressures of pursing traditional career opportunities during college. You said, “I hesitate to give advice because I’ve barely had any life experiences and have no idea how my choices will turn out…” I wondered if you might have an update on that advice now that you’ve had more life experiences.


RP: I have more conviction on that advice given how these last few years have gone. I think that one thing we don't ask ourselves enough is, “is this work fun?” The only way you can really stay committed to something in the very long run is if you're having fun doing it. Even with something socially good, if your sole driver is to wake up every day intending to improve the world, you’re always going to be left unsatisfied because you’re never going to improve the world as much as you want. Even icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi wished they could have done more. I would add that the question, “are you having fun?” is an importation decision criterion when making career choices. And I feel so lucky that I found a job where having fun aligns with maximizing my own impact given my passions and abilities.


AJM: Upsolve takes on an intern each year; how important is involving students? Do you see this as a way to champion the less traditional career opportunities that you advocated for in 2017?


RP: Oh yeah, totally. I think it’s a way to expose people to a new kind of work because Upsolve doesn’t fit into a normal or traditional nonprofit. We’re obviously not a traditional nonprofit and we’re obviously not a corporation, so we are really a new kind of organization. There aren’t very many new technology nonprofits around, so part of my passion for building Upsolve is not just the issue we are tackling, but the mode in which we are tackling it. I think that many more students should be focused on building technology in the public interest, and we hope we can be one example, in our own field, where that's possible.


The students we work with work extremely hard. Nick is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. I'm not saying ever met for his age, just ever met full stop. He has made a material difference in the trajectory of Upsolve. I can think of so many things that we do differently because Nick joined Upsolve. And even this year, Nick was responsible for how we ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, because of the decisions and the roadmap that he laid out for us earlier this year. For somebody in their early twenties, that’s an immense amount of opportunity that you can have when you come and work at Upsolve while also improving yourself over time, as Nick has done. Nick was one of the first people we ever worked with at Harvard, and of course the caliber of people from Harvard is extremely special by and large. I just feel lucky to be able to partner with them.


NB: I’d like to add onto that. I think what's incredible, not even just about Upsolve, but about Harvard's relation with legal tech nonprofits in general, is Harvard has an unusually special connection to many leading legal tech nonprofits in this country. There's Upsolve, there is JustFix which works on housing problems in New York City, and there's also which works with DACA. I think it creates an atmosphere at Harvard that if you're interested in legal tech for good, there is a ton of people to talk to and get connected to these kinds of organizations. Rohan is certainly a pioneer at Harvard, and I’m really excited to see more incredible legal tech organizations come out of Harvard in the future.


AJM: Rohan, your work is at the intersection of law, justice, tech, etc. And Nicholas, you are interested in normative issues, especially those surrounding progressive politics and the U.S. bankruptcy system. Could you both talk about how these interests and your work have connected to the Center and its mission?


RP: The goal of Upsolve is really about justice. One of the important things the Center does is that it teaches you how to arrive to your own conception of justice that is independent minded. The Center also exposes you to what other folks believe, whether it’s Rawls or the other frameworks that are available.


The thing that led me to starting Upsolve was realizing the way that we have designed our law schools, legal profession, legal system, and courts is in many ways anti-democratic. It’s anti-democratic in the ways that we have restricted the supply of help available. By restricting the supply of help available in the way that we have today, we compromise our rule of law and guarantee that we will never have equal rights for all because we have guaranteed that we will never have enough supply of help that’s available for the people who need it.


NB: To add onto Rohan's wonderful words, when I entered the Safra Center, I began to feel that today we often don’t have enough solidarity. Solidarity is one of humanity’s most fundamental values that leads to justice. And I think that we often don’t feel enough solidarity with individuals going through the bankruptcy system. Being trapped under crushing levels of debt can be an immense traumatic experience. If we want to make a bankruptcy system that is accessible to all we first need to stand with those struggling with crippling levels of debt.


As for my work on progressive politics, last summer I worked for Rising, a political news show that was on The Hill TV. We were promoting bipartisan, but non-establishment, views that were explicitly pro-working class. Discussions around the ethics of journalism with my peers in the Safra Center helped convince me that we need more journalism that is simultaneously bipartisan, non-establishment, and pro-working class. Once I had this conviction, I knew I should try to work at Rising.


AJM: Do you have any projects on the horizon?


RP: We have a big announcement coming in January, but I’ll hold off on talking about that for now. Next year, we are focused on continuing to expand our education. Up until now, folks have thought about Upsolve as TurboTax for filing bankruptcy, we are moving onto being a broader resource for people facing financial distress for issues not just around bankruptcy, but also how deal with judgments, fight debt collection lawsuits, stop wage garnishment, navigate student loans, and rebuild your credit. We want Upsolve to be a place for that.


NB: Today, more than 80% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. I am starting a thesis project that melds the history of how this crisis came about with ethical and political analysis of how we ought to end this crisis.


AJM: How do you all unwind when you’re not working, do you have any hobbies?


RP: This year I’ve started going to the meditation center in Chelsea, so that’s been a big part of my year. I also run along the West Side Highway most mornings.


NB: I started going on very long walks around more suburban parts of Cambridge. I love the tree-lined streets and brick sidewalks. I've also started trying to watch every Studio Ghibli movie because Hayao Miyazaki, their famous director, is going to come out of retirement soon to make one last movie and I want to see his life's work before I see that last one.


AJM: Do you have a podcast or show that you are currently listening to/watching?


NB: I don't listen to the podcast “Breaking Points” enough, but I really like it. It is the podcast that the head anchors of Rising, the organization I used to work at, started when they left The Hill TV to go independent. The show has become more fierier now that they're independent. It's a really fun and incredible show and it's been rising through the rankings, sometimes it's even the number one political news podcasts in the country depending on the week.


RP: I don't have any podcasts or shows, but I'm looking forward to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” coming out with the next season in February.


AJM: What are you most excited about in the coming year?


RP: By having so many users now and access to stories across the United States, we have the opportunity to continue to uplift those voices and push for systemic reform by bringing our users together, so I just want to invest more in that arena.


NB: There's a lot of things I could talk about related to Upsolve and bankruptcy and what I am excited about, but I guess I would have to say that I'm going to be spending the new year in Nepal visiting one of my closest friends who is from there. I'm leaving in about a week.


AJM: What haven’t we talked about that is on your mind related to the Center?


RP: I’ll share a great story with Arthur that I still think about from time to time. I took my junior fall off from college to work on Upsolve full time. I emailed Arthur to let him know that I wasn’t going to be on campus, and I jokingly called it a sabbatical. Arthur replied that’s a “category error” and you can’t take a “sabbatical from a sabbatical”—like joking about Harvard being a vacation in and of itself. The thing that I really appreciated about that was that I continue to not think of Upsolve as work in a conventional sense. I think of Upsolve as a calling and as something that I just enjoy being able to do. Of course, there are moments that it is hard, but it wouldn’t be fun if it was easy. I love that playful approach to work that Arthur implied in his comment and it has been a good frame for my own professional life.


NB: I'm not sure if we touched on this, but I see the Edmond J. Safra Center as blending in and out of academia. I don't really think of the work that Upsolve, or myself or really any other people that take insights from the Safra Center and taking into the real world, as completely distinct from the work that the professors and researchers and fellows at the Safra Center are doing. We're all trying to understand how to apply concrete principles to the real world to make the world better.


RP: I just looked this up to confirm, but Martha Minow who is one of the leaders in access to justice in America was the acting director of the Safra Center twice. She’s been really supportive of Upsolve and I’m just really grateful for her. And Danielle Allen, running for governor of Massachusetts, that’s just a great example of somebody who has her own view for justice and developed that view combining academic study and real-world experience. She is walking the walk now and is actually running for governor. I think that is inspiring to see someone making that jump and is totally emblematic of what role the Safra Center has to play. That’s the kind of life that Nick and I aspire to live.