Rohan Pavuluri '14

Year of Graduation: 
Rohan Pavuluri

"If you can’t pay legal fees, you don’t have the same rights as everyone else."

In telling the tale of how he came to create Upsolve, a nonprofit online platform that empowers families to overcome financial distress, Rohan Pavuluri ’14 repeatedly mentions luck. He was lucky, he says, to go to Exeter and Harvard; lucky to have the instructors and professors he credits with shaping the trajectory of his life; lucky to meet his future Upsolve co-founder; lucky to get funding and gain traction as a startup. “If you ask me, is it either hard work or luck,” he says. “I’ll say 100% luck.”

Don’t be fooled. Though there may have been a bit of good fortune at his back, Pavuluri is driven, and at the age of 25, he’s already positively improved the lives of millions of Americans through his ingenuity, compassion and dogged determination. “It’s part of the American DNA that when people hit hard times, we give them a second chance,” Pavuluri says. 

The Upsolve site currently tallies more than 2 million visitors per year and — through educational tools and a free app that helps families file bankruptcy — has helped relieve $300 million in debt — numbers that will no doubt increase in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Invoking the organization’s slogan, “Civil Rights Should Be Free,” Pavuluri says, “There is a civil rights injustice that we don’t talk about in America, which is that low-income and working-class families live in a different legal system than everyone else. If you can’t afford a lawyer within our civil legal system, you have no right to a free lawyer. It’s a modern-day poll tax, in the form of legal fees. If you can’t pay legal fees, you don’t have the same rights as everyone else.”

It’s part of the American DNA that when people hit hard times, we give them a second chance.”

Pavuluri is turning heads with his deep commitment to non sibi work. He was recognized on the 2018 Forbes 30 under 30 Law & Policy list and, together with Upsolve, was given a Robin Hood Foundation Heroes Award for “extraordinary contributions in the fight against poverty.” This year, he was named to the TIME 100 Next list of “rising stars shaping the future.”

To anyone who knew him as an Exonian, none of this comes as a surprise. As a 14-year-old in his first trimester, the budding “emerging leader” managed to arrange an hourlong private chat with assembly speaker Andrew Card, chief of staff under former President George W. Bush, when he realized that both he and Card had free time between the assembly and lunch. By his upper year, Pavuluri was on a first-name basis with former New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, at the latter’s insistence. “You realize these senators, governors and CEOs are just people, and that you, too, can go after the biggest vision of your goals for the world,” Pavuluri says. 

With a developing interest in politics and public policy, the Chicago native was drawn to the Academy not only for its academic excellence, but also by the promise of working with inspiring changemakers. A member of the Exeter Democrats Club, Pavuluri got involved at the grassroots level and was known to help rally peers at 5 a.m. with coffee and doughnuts before they headed out to distribute campaign literature. 

He worked across the aisle, too, sharing introductory duties for the assembly featuring Gov. Lynch — his invitee — with Zach Young ’13, head of the Exeter Republicans, for example. He and Young also collaborated on the Exeter Political Union, a club that held bipartisan dialogues on issues such as gun regulation. “Rohan is a very thoughtful communicator who enjoys the exchange of ideas leading toward action,” Young says. “But he’s not someone who will just debate all day. He’s someone who, ultimately, wants to get projects done that affect people in material ways.” 

Pavuluri spent all four summers during high school working either on Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s campaign or in his office, and developed interests beyond politics, as well. He was an active member of Exeter’s cycling and mock trial teams. And while both of those endeavors were new to him when he arrived on campus, he was eventually named captain of each team. Cycling coach Don Mills says Pavuluri had an easygoing, calm mentality as a rider and set an example for the rest of the team, which won the New England championship his senior year. 

Rohan Pavuluri on his bicycle

He shared even greater successes with the mock trial team, which was invited to the national championships three years running. Walter Stahr ’75, the team’s adviser at the time, remembers returning home after the first trip to nationals. In the Albuquerque airport, Pavuluri, then a lower, spotted the team that had won. “He just walked over and introduced himself and struck up a conversation,” Stahr says, laughing at the combination of friendliness and desire to glean a tip or two from the victors. The following year, the Exonians came in 10th place nationwide. Of Pavuluri’s grasp of the elements of law and his mock trial skills, Stahr says, “There are some things you can’t coach: a certain kind of confidence, physical presence, quickness on your feet. He had all those things from a very early age.” Being a natty dresser in the courtroom didn’t hurt, either.

In class, Pavuluri accumulated honors. He notably won the Negley Prize in American History for the year’s best work. Pavuluri wrote about the contentious nomination of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. Instructor in History Bill Jordan describes that essay as “graduate-school level.” He remembers Pavuluri taking every relevant book he could find in the library back to his room, where he holed up and wrote. Pavuluri was also awarded the Nathaniel Gordon Bible Fund Prize for the study of religion and the Harvard Book Prize. 

“He has this thirst for learning that was really fun to see and very contagious — it spread to others,” Emerita Religion Instructor Kathleen Brownback says. “If you hadn’t done the reading, you didn’t want to go up against an argument of Rohan’s.” But if he was known for being hardworking and bright, Pavuluri wanted others to be engaged, too. Brownback compares the Harkness method to spinning plates, with multiple ideas and discussions going at one time: “If somebody dropped a plate, Rohan would pick it up, turn it into a Frisbee and send it sailing across.”

Honing his critical thinking skills and mastering the art of persuasive argumentation at Exeter, Pavuluri says, meant that when he matriculated at Harvard, he was able to appreciate it as “an incubator,” rather than four more years of education. His goal was to discover novel uses for technology and ways to get software in people’s hands, especially those with limited financial, social or political capital. “Software and public policy both have the ability to reach a lot of people and make a difference in their lives quickly,” he says. 

During his sophomore year, he routinely spent time at Harvard Law School, thinking he would eventually pursue a law degree. Looking for nontraditional ways to use technology to help marginalized communities, he joined the law school’s Access to Justice Lab as a research assistant in its Financial Distress Research Project. He found his polestar when he learned that filing for bankruptcy costs $1,500 and that legal representation is not guaranteed in matters of civil law: “If you can’t pay legal fees, you don’t have the same rights as everyone else. In poverty law, that is an unconscionable reality.” 

Milton Syed '14 and Rohan Pavuluri '14 accept a prize grant check from Harvard President Drew Faust.

That summer, he established a Robin Hood Foundation–supported clinic in Brooklyn, to begin to address these inequities. In the interest of better understanding his beneficiaries, he joined them at church, in their neighborhoods, and in housing and bankruptcy courts. His presence was noted by a court security guard, who wondered what could bring him there every single day. When Pavuluri outlined the sheer number of people who have lost virtually everything through an unexpected medical bill, a job loss, or a family breakup, the guard suggested he meet with a sitting judge, who then introduced him to attorney Jonathan Petts.

In 2017, Petts and Pavuluri joined forces to found Upsolve. Three years later, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit was named a TIME 2020 Best Invention. The nonprofit has raised $5 million in philanthropic funding to date from individuals, foundations, universities, government agencies and corporations. It’s a point of pride for Pavuluri that his team is a unique cross-section of Silicon Valley techies and members of the world of social justice — indeed, that the entire organization enjoys that blend. The monthly “Upsolve Data Report” looks at a particular issue through the lens of actual data points from Upsolve users; two recent posts focused on the effects of job loss, student loans and medical debt, as well as Black financial peril.

Friends say it is authentic non sibi that underlies all of Pavuluri’s work. “He didn’t do the things he did [at Exeter] because it was going to get him into college or because the cool kids did it or any of those superfluous reasons,” says mock trial teammate Gene Chang ’13. “For Rohan, it was a genuine passion and it showed. I think he has accomplished the most of my friends from Exeter and Harvard — and these are accomplished people — and the reason he hasn’t run out of fuel is because he genuinely believes what he’s doing will make a difference, and he has fun doing it. It’s only a matter of time before Rohan’s invited to be an assembly speaker.” 

The soft-spoken Pavuluri deflects the praise, giving the nod to others, including Upsolve’s users for teaching him “what would be valuable in their lives — really, we co-created with them.” He even named one user to the four-member board. He explains that like Khan Academy and K-12 education or the Mayo Clinic and health, Upsolve’s goal is to be the source for anyone in financial distress. Resources on student loans and debt collection, as well as whether it’s OK to buy a car after filing for Chapter 7 protection, are already available. “People are so lonely when they’re going through legal and financial problems,” Pavuluri says. “Our goal is to provide them with education, an online community and the appropriate level of care. Ultimately, Upsolve is not just about bankruptcy. Our goal is to be the best place on the internet for any low-income family who’s in financial distress and needs help.”

— Sarah Zobel

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.