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Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic students work with local business owners toward neighborhood revitalization

February 21, 2022

ELC students gain valuable hands-on legal practice while supporting organic economic growth in local neighborhoods.

Deputy Dean for Clinical Education Praveen Kosuri suspects that when most people think of “entrepreneurship,” they tend to think of greedy corporations, but for the students in the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic (ELC), entrepreneurship and creating positive social impact go hand-in-hand.

“There’s a misperception that what we do doesn’t align with the public interest ethos of other clinics,” said Kosuri, who is also a Practice Professor of Law and the Director of the ELC. “Over the past 15 years, we have recast the ELC to focus on social impact. Everything we do is about creating positive social impact.”

ELC is one of nine legal clinics housed in the Gittis Legal Clinics. In the ELC, students gain practical experience representing entrepreneurial and organizational clients through a diverse range of legal matters related to their businesses’ success.

In Kosuri’s opinion, supporting local entrepreneurs is one of the most effective ways to encourage revitalization in neighborhoods that have historically seen disinvestment because locally run businesses tend to re-invest their profits back into their communities.

“Conversations around revitalizing neighborhoods used to revolve around bringing big box retailers into a poorer neighborhood,” Kosuri said. “But a business that is started by an entrepreneur from a neighborhood is more likely to employ people from that neighborhood and keep the dollars spent at that business in the neighborhood as well. The theory is that this leads to greater economic development locally and wealth creation for the entrepreneurs themselves. Entrepreneurship can be a poverty alleviation strategy.”

Creating sustainable social impact

West Philadelphia entrepreneur Dr. Kimberly McGlonn sought the ELC’s services for her sustainable clothing store, Grant BLVD. After spending 16 years as an educator teaching courses pertaining to colonialism and disenfranchisement in America, McGlonn felt that it was time for her to take a new approach toward solving the complicated societal issues she observed in her community. She credited media such as Ava Duvernay’s award-winning documentary “13th” with helping to broaden her understanding of how systems — like the carceral system — produce and reinforce oppression in cycles.

McGlonn began studying the fashion industry as a potential means to create jobs for folks whose lives had been impacted by these cycles; however, when she learned about how unsustainable and problematic the fashion industry supply chain tended to be, particularly for communities in Southeast Asia, she determined that she did not want to solve one problem by contributing to another.

Grant BLVD operates radically outside the lines of a typical fashion business. In addition to sourcing all of its textiles sustainably, it also prioritizes employing formerly-incarcerated individuals — a group that, historically, has been effectively shut out of the job market. At its core, Grant BLVD seeks to break cycles of poverty and criminalization, instead providing opportunities for people to grow their skills, secure dependable incomes, and participate meaningfully in the local economy.

Collaborating toward positive change

McGlonn has worked closely with ELC students over several semesters as she continues to adjust to the ever-changing circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and brainstorm new ideas for profit and social impact growth.

“The pandemic has required a special level of thinking about what it means to be nimble. Building community in a time when people feel so generally anxious and unsafe has been a challenge. We had to think about how we could use brick and mortar to do that,” McGlonn said. “We also had to think about what was needed to achieve profitability while not only being focused on profit… . We never aspired to be a luxury brand, but at the same time, we want to pay our team members a living wage. How do you center that and navigate through that, and how do you survive long enough to think through better solutions? That requires a lot of savvy, which is where ELC comes in.”

Samantha Baham L’22, who counseled McGlonn during her Spring 2021 semester in the ELC, felt keenly aware of the responsibility Clinic students owed to their clients. Recognizing the impact of her legal research, client counseling, and advising drove Baham to work hard and pay careful attention to detail while providing advice and deliverables to McGlonn.

“When you’re in class and you answer a question wrong, it’s not that big of a deal, but [the work you do in ELC] affects someone’s livelihood,” Baham said, “You really have to be careful and make sure you’re really putting your best foot forward.”

Baham’s hard work was not lost on McGlonn, who noted that ELC students’ stalwart commitment to providing her with excellent legal advice has been an invaluable tool in helping achieve her goals. To her, a major part of a lawyer’s role is making a client feel comfortable with reaching the complicated decisions necessary to keep their business running.

“You hear the word ‘legal,’ and often the default thinking is stress,” McGlonn said. “But I really enjoy working with the students. So many conversations I’ve had as a client have actually been fun, and part of what makes it so fun is that the students have been so attentive and dedicated.”

Both Baham and McGlonn described the experience as highly collaborative.

“Every single law student I’ve worked with, whether they’ve realized it or not, has really owned the idea of being a teacher, and that’s so important when it comes to client relations,” McGlonn said. “That continues to be such a positive part of my interaction with law students who are working with the Clinic. It feels supportive and nurturing and is always a good vibe.”

The experience Baham had in ELC has already helped her to become a more confident lawyer.

“Out of every class I took and every experience I had in Law School, the Clinic prepared me the most for the work I’ll be doing post-graduation,” said Baham. “At my internship last summer, I saw my experience working with ELC translate into how I approached research projects, presented my research, and fielded questions from partners. I don’t know if I would have been as successful in my summer associate experience if I hadn’t had that practice in the Clinic and gained the confidence to know that I could do it — and do it successfully.”

Growing a thriving community

For Kosuri, prioritizing neighborhood revitalization within ELC has an important ripple effect: when one business succeeds, they tend to want to uplift others around them, resulting in collective community growth.

“If entrepreneurs are successful in creating businesses in their own neighborhoods, they will lend a hand to the next person who wants to create a business down the street from them,” Kosuri said. “Eventually they will create their own network of business owners, and very slowly and incrementally, we can actually revitalize parts of this city that have seen a lot of disinvestment. It’s a grass roots approach to economic development.”

McGlonn also underscored the importance of community, noting how important University of Pennsylvania students are to the local economy. She emphasized that she hopes law students recognize the role they play in West Philly and invited students to stop by her store at 35th and Lancaster to see the ways she and her team approach sustainable design.

“Students: You are coming from all over the world to make Philadelphia your temporary home. A major part of contributing is thinking about how you shop locally,” McGlonn said. “This is a place you’re really benefiting from. No matter where you’re from, in this moment, West Philly is holding you down. When you’re able to, it’s a beautiful reciprocation to hold West Philly down, too.”

Learn more about experiential learning opportunities through the Gittis Legal Clinics.