From social ventures to new-energy startups, HLS is helping students get their ideas off the ground.
By Katie Bacon
The seed for Anna Palmer’s startup was planted this past October during fall break of her 3L year, when her sister rousted her out of bed at 7 a.m. to go to a garage sale. Her sister was looking for a winter coat for her 2-year-old son, and she didn’t trust buying items from strangers on eBay or Craigslist. If they didn’t get to the garage sale early, she told Palmer, all the good stuff would be gone.
Palmer thought there had to be a better way, so later she sat down with her sister to talk it through. How would she feel comfortable acquiring used items for her child, in a way that didn’t involve rushing out of the house at 7 on a Saturday? The result is Swapfish, an online community due to be launched in July, where parents can form networks over Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook in order to buy, sell or share children’s toys or clothes.
There have always been entrepreneurs at HLS. More than 150 years ago, Jonathan Greenleaf Eveleth co-founded the nation’s first oil company soon after his graduation, in 1854. Alan Khazei ’87 and Michael Brown ’88 came up with the plan for City Year during their time at the law school. But the focus on and support for entrepreneurship have recently intensified. Last year, Dean Martha Minow announced the creation of the Public Service Venture Fund, which in 2013 will start awarding $1 million in grants each year, some of them targeted toward graduating students trying to get nonprofit startups off the ground. “Harvard Law School is here to help all of our students pursue their dreams. Many have ideas for new enterprises and undertakings; others develop such ideas when encouraged,” Minow says. A group of students and practicing attorneys recently formed the Harvard Law Entrepreneurship Project to provide free legal research and advice to budding entrepreneurs.
In February and March, the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising hosted a series of well-attended workshops on how to launch a social venture, planned by Lecturer on Law Marion Fremont-Smith, who co-taught the course The Law of Nonprofit Organizations this spring, and OPIA’s Judith Murciano, who has consistently been a strong advocate and vital resource for budding social entrepreneurs at the law school. Other classes, like Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship, taught by Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, who created a nonprofit called BUILD a decade ago, have recently been added to the curriculum.
As Palmer can attest, there are great advantages to being at the law school while trying to launch a new venture—in terms of the classes, resources and legal knowledge available. This winter she took Klahr’s class, where students were exposed to the intricacies of founding a social venture. “It was the first time I had been in a room at Harvard where everyone either wanted to start a company or had already,” says Palmer. She also took Entrepreneurship and Company Creation taught by David Hornik ’94. In the hands-on seminar she was connected with an entrepreneur named Michael Baum, the founding CEO of Splunk, an IT data company, who taught her the nuts and bolts of how to build an enterprise. “Having a mentor is extremely important, and his guidance and training were invaluable. It is what helped me launch Swapfish so quickly,” Palmer says. But, she admits, juggling the demands of law school while founding a business is not easy.
In the same vein, Ashwin Kaja ’11 says that the key lesson he has had to learn while trying to get his social venture off the ground is how to delegate. “You have to realize that when you’re a law student, you’re going to have less time,” he says. “A lot of times entrepreneurs will try to do everything themselves, but you can’t do that.” Kaja is the founder of Investours, an organization that fights poverty by connecting micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries with socially conscious tourists. The tourists spend time with the micro-entrepreneurs learning about their work, and then decide as a group which ones they’ll support, through an interest-free micro-loan. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, one group helped a community of woodcarvers buy ebony to make their traditional crafts; another supported a woman who needed a loan to buy a vat of oil for her soap-making business. In Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Investours has supported a fisherman who had to make repairs on the transmission of his fishing boat and a cook who needed a new oven to expand her granola business. During the organization’s pilot program in Oaxaca, Mexico, the groups gave out more than 120 loans. Kaja says Investours is careful to select poverty-focused micro-finance institutions and works closely with them to make sure that “our tourists are not supporting unethical moneylending practices.”
Kaja, who was a semifinalist for a fellowship from Echoing Green, a prominent social venture fund that has helped organizations like Teach for America, Khazei and Brown’s City Year, and the Genocide Intervention Network get off the ground, hopes to expand substantially in the coming year. And he’s availed himself of the resources that exist at the law school, including working with Clinical Professor Brian Price’s Transactional Practice clinic to complete the application necessary for 501(c)(3) status. Having a legal background is helpful, Kaja says, because “legal issues come up all the time, in everything we do.”
In some cases, a student’s legal background is what draws him or her into entrepreneurship in the first place. During the fall of his 2L year, Alain Goubau ’11 took a class at MIT called Energy Ventures, where two engineers are matched with two business school students and one student with a law or policy background to try to launch a new product concept. In this case, the inventor was MIT graduate student Ben Glass, and his idea—a design for an airborne wind turbine—came to him in the shower. Some ideas never make it much beyond the class, but Glass, Goubau and the rest of the team are working toward launching a 2-kilowatt prototype this summer, under the company name Altaeros Energies. Based on the fact that wind resources tend to be more abundant 600 feet or more above the ground, out of reach of conventional wind turbines, the team’s plan is to capture that wind through a tethered balloon or blimp with a turbine at its center (the idea has been called the “flying donut from MIT”). Goubau explains that airborne wind turbines could eventually be a lower-cost, lower-impact solution to power generation than the offshore wind farms that have generated so much controversy. The shorter-term goal is to develop a 100-kilowatt system aimed at those off the grid, including on islands, in isolated communities, on military bases, and on mining and logging sites.
The chances of any given startup succeeding are small, but Altaeros has attracted some interest from significant players, including the Army, which is looking for alternatives to diesel for powering forward-operating bases, and the Navy, which sees an application for the technology on ships that use a lot of power for refrigeration. Goubau, who worked as a mechanical engineer before going to law school, plays a variety of roles for the company, including overseeing the creation of the base station for the tethered turbine and managing the company’s relationship with counsel. He says that several of his classes, including Corporations and Taxation, have been useful in understanding the basics of how to set up a company. And he’s experienced a more general benefit too: “Being able to sit down with my business partners and explain what this legal piece means—that’s what law school has brought to me.”
Like Goubau, Mehran Ebadolahi ’10 helped launch a new project while he was a law student. His childhood friend Mike Ghaffary ’06 came up with BarMax, the first iPhone (and now iPad) app for bar exam preparation. “I had the idea, and I needed someone who could build out the content. I wanted someone from Harvard Law to do it,” Ghaffary says. His inspiration came when he was studying for the bar exam a few years after law school and took a standard prep course. “They charged me $4,000 for a stack of law books and mediocre lectures,” he says. Like Anna Palmer, Ghaffary felt there had to be a better way—so he started designing his own format, including digital flashcards, real test questions and a detailed study calendar. Although BarMax is expensive for the iPhone—at $999.99, it costs as much as any app can—its price significantly undercuts the competition’s, and so far, more than 300 students have purchased it.
Ebadolahi started working on BarMax during his 2L summer, continued throughout his last year of law school and is now working full time as the company’s chief operating officer. He recalls some long nights of working to build the company while keeping up with his studies, but he says that being at the law school during that early time of the company’s life was invaluable. “Most law schools, if you came to them with this idea to create an iPhone app—I don’t think they would be happy with that decision. But the support at Harvard was tremendous,” Ebadolahi says.
While some students become entrepreneurs because they want to bring one particular idea into the world, for others, entrepreneurship is a way of life. David Back ’12 is the co-director of entrepreneurship of the Harvard Association for Law and Business, a student group that seeks to connect law students to the business world. He’s also what could be called a “multipreneur.” “I’m most happy when I’m creating something new,” he says. “Law school is very intellectually stimulating, but it’s also nice to think that I’m creating something real, something that can extend beyond me and create value.”
After college, Back attempted to start a clean-energy business, involving a new type of generator that would use liquid magnets to take excess heat from big industrial practices such as steel milling and convert that heat into electricity. During his 1L year, he and a couple of college friends started a website for applicants to law, business and medical schools, aggregating user-generated data to give people a sense of their chances of admission to a given school. And these days, he is developing a plan to bring car-sharing to India (car-sharing services such as Zipcar exist in more than a thousand cities worldwide, but there are none in India, says Back). Still, the clean-energy idea seems to maintain a hold on Back, and the fact that it didn’t succeed is partly why he came to law school in the first place: “We learned an awful lot during that process, but the biggest lesson for me was one of humility. I thought the idea we were working on was excellent, but we didn’t have the knowledge, skills, network and credentials to succeed. All of those things I lack [are] why I’m at HLS now.”
Other students conceptualize their ideas during law school but wait until after graduation—sometimes years after—to fully develop them. Adam Stofsky ’04, who spoke at a March 22 OPIA panel on launching a social venture, recently started the New Media Advocacy Project, known as N-Map, which helps human rights groups integrate new media technologies into legal advocacy. Stofsky stumbled upon his idea during his 1L summer, when he went “on a bit of a whim” to work for the Social and Economic Rights Action Center in Lagos, Nigeria. He was charged with writing a report about the forced eviction by Lagos’ military government of 300,000 people from a town slated for demolition. When Stofsky arrived, the evictees’ lawsuit had been languishing in court for 12 years with no hearing. At the time, digital video was in its infancy, and Stofsky decided to bring along a video camera to interview his clients. “They were incredibly charismatic in front of the camera. We quickly realized that this would be much more effective than a report,” he recalls. Over the rest of the summer and throughout the next school year, Stofsky worked with a lawyer in Lagos to craft a documentary in a way that would push the Nigerian government to act on the case; eventually, after showing the film to government officials, SERAC was able to get them to the negotiating table with the victims for the first time.
After graduation, Stofsky looked for an organization that combined documentary filmmaking with legal strategy in this way; but he couldn’t find one, and he wasn’t ready to start one himself. Instead, he developed his skills as a lawyer, clerking in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, working for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law through a Skadden Fellowship doing legislative advocacy, and working for Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City. “I thought it was very important to be a lawyer first, and this has proved one hundred percent true. My best decision was to delay the founding. You have to know what you’re doing first,” he says. With the help of an Echoing Green fellowship, N-Map got up and running in the summer of 2009. Since then, as with most startups, Stofsky says, “it’s been a crazy roller coaster ride,” with projects including filming a documentary inside a Haitian prison to push the government to address the issue of prisoners held indefinitely without trial, and using social media and mobile technology to change how evidence is gathered in human rights reporting.
Teel Lidow ’12, the founder of the Harvard Law Entrepreneurship Project, sees the energy around entrepreneurship at HLS as part of a larger trend. “I think that there’s a general sense, especially after the financial collapse, that new industries are really important, that new ideas need to be developed in terms of building the economy and adding value to the world,” Lidow says. “There were a couple of decades where the most fantastic minds that came here went into industries where they weren’t necessarily developing new ideas. There’s a sense among the people I work with that that’s been a mistake. We need to harness the creative power of these people to come up with new ideas.”
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