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Supporting Sustainable Start-Ups & Underrepresented Entrepreneurs

June 10, 2024

Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic students sitting around a large square of desks at Penn Carey Law
ELC students at Penn Carey Law

Our Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic contributes to economic development with a focus on underrepresented entrepreneurs and social impact start-ups.

Julia Yan ENG’22, GEN’22 and two of her classmates felt they were onto something. As part of their capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering, they developed a forward-thinking plan to help the environment. They would develop filters to capture microplastics in synthetic clothing before they spilled from washing machines into waterways—no small thing since a single load of laundry can release up to 700,000 microfibers.

The students won the inaugural President’s Sustainability Prize at Penn in 2022, prompting Yan to attend a luncheon for fellow start-up honorees. That’s where she found out about the Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic (ELC) at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. At the ELC, Penn Carey Law students provide legal services to start-ups and entrepreneurs in the Philadelphia area, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, social ventures developing goods and services to improve the world, and economic development projects to bring resources to distressed communities.

Acting on recommendations from ELC clients at the event, Yan enlisted the clinic to guide her company, Baleena, through its growing pains with invaluable legal advice. Now, the company is growing with new corporate partners who have agreed to try their filters in their repair, testing, and design centers. Baleena is also poised to market their product to eco-friendly stores on the East and West coasts. Over the winter, the young founders were named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the energy category.

‘Grassroots Economic Development’

Praveen Kosuri, Deputy Dean for Clinical Education and ELC Director Praveen Kosuri, Deputy Dean for Clinical Education and ELC DirectorSince its founding in 1981 in collaboration with Wharton, the ELC has helped launch eateries, artists and arts organizations, fashion ventures, health science enterprises, environmental businesses, and many others. Under the supervision of faculty members with decades of experience as business lawyers, students support entrepreneurs and owners by drafting and reviewing everything from operating and vendor agreements, providing management and employment advice, and counseling clients on intellectual property. ELC clients include a mix of for-profit and nonprofit organizations, and many have a social impact mission, contributing positively to their neighborhoods and to society at large.

Praveen Kosuri, Deputy Dean for Clinical Education, Director of the ELC, and Practice Professor of Law, developed the clinic’s focus on social impact, which has become a national model. He describes the clinic’s work as “grassroots economic development.”

As a premier experiential educational opportunity, the ELC gives students the opportunity to do real-life legal work and apply what they learn in the classroom. Up to 16 students in the clinic per semester spend about 20 hours a week on the course, which includes a classroom component as well as direct client work.

“They are just beginning to form their professional identities here in the Clinic,” Kosuri said. “They are not just learning what a lawyer does but what a lawyer is. And that’s what I hope to really imbue in them.”

Yan, Baleena’s Chief Executive Officer, found common ground with the students.

“We were really young and were just starting out, so it was really cool to engage with people of a similar age. We really enjoyed it.”

So did Yusef Ahmad L’23, who helped Baleena negotiate an agreement with a local laboratory for product testing and product development, assisted with developing corporate governance rules, and advised the company on future strategic partnerships. “It was rewarding to help guide a high-impact company that looked to make the world cleaner,” Ahmad said. “I loved my experience.”

Yusef Ahmad L'23 with clinical faculty accepting CLEA Outstanding Student Award Yusef Ahmad L’23 accepting the CLEA Outstanding Student Award with clinical faculty and staffAhmad, who won the CLEA Outstanding Student Award from the Clinical Legal Education Association in 2023, transferred his clinical skills—anticipating and solving problems and developing strong interpersonal relationships—to his current job at Simpson Thacher, where he works on private equity fund projects.

The ELC was a just-in-time solution for Yan and co-founders Chief Operating Officer Sarah Beth Gleeson ENG’22 and Chief Technology Officer Shoshana Weintraub ENG’22, who left the company last year to pursue a PhD but remains on the board. When Pennovation Center, a respected business incubator on campus, offered to provide free office and lab space, including a washing machine, for product testing, the company needed legal help in negotiating the binding agreement. Taking on investors, company structure, and governance raised additional legal issues.

“We were just so lost and confused,” Yan said. “The ELC helped us secure funding and they converted our company from an L[imited] L[iability] C[company] to a C Corporation. They also helped us review contracts we were getting from corporate partners. It was a growing experience for us, learning how to run a company.”

Gabriel Mandujano C’05, W’05, another environmentally minded entrepreneur, went a similar route when he established Wash Cycle Laundry, which uses industrial-size washers to clean soiled linens primarily for hotels. The process conserves water and reduces energy use. Unlike typical commercial laundries, which use strong chemicals that require lots of water to wash out, Wash Cycle employs a pH-neutral laundry detergent.

Wash Cycle started out as a pickup laundry service for local homes and businesses in West Philadelphia, with only a single bicycle and trailer for deliveries. Since its founding in 2010, the company has grown and expanded into the Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Boston markets.

The ELC supported the company during its early stages. Mandujano said he learned about the Clinic when he was working at The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit on the outer edges of Penn’s campus which helps minorities develop their business ideas (and also an ELC client). He said the ELC helped the company incorporate and offered advice on how to secure outside capital—critical steps for a new company. During that time, Wash Cycle worked with several teams of students, including Grayson Weeks L’16.

Serving essentially as a business and legal advisor, Weeks helped Wash Cycle with lease agreements, term sheets for acquisitions, and capital raising. Weeks, now an associate in the Tax Group at White & Case in New York, said the ELC was a “critical piece of my education,” because it allowed him to use all his theoretical knowledge, from contracts to securities and corporations.

Mandujano said while instituting environmentally sound practices was important, he also wanted to create a pathway to employment for workers with a history of homelessness or incarceration. Today, he has 110 employees, most of whom fall into those categories.

Considering the totality of his company, he said, “What we’re doing right now is pretty heretical.”

Supporting Marginalized Entrepreneurs

Over the course of numerous sessions at the SCI Phoenix maximum security prison outside Philadelphia, something magical happened: 25 incarcerated musicians collaborated with instrumentalists from the world-famous Curtis Institute of Music to cut an extraordinary concept album about mass incarceration.

The record owes its genesis to August Tarrier, community arts activist and founder of Songs in the Key of Free, a nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing and showcasing the talents of incarcerated musicians.

headshot of Katia Cardoza L'24 Katia Cardoza L’24“It was a project full of heart and full of the power of people who are often dehumanized and often oppressed, and it was a chance for them to shine,” Tarrier said.

Although the ELC did not get a producing credit, the clinic served as a kind of de facto record company. Tarrier had scant budget for legal assistance as she started to map out the project, and three semesters of free support from the clinic helped her tackle copyright issues and document research.

The album, recorded in the prison chapel, was released in 2022. From soul to rap, the album features a former owner and manager of a record label and production company, rock drummers, and an artist who once opened for Philadelphia-based R&B and jazz fusion group, Pieces of a Dream. The heart-rending songs include “I Still Cry,” “Freedom,” “Letter to My Son,” “I Refuse to Be Defined,” “What These Hands Have Done,” “Welcome Home,” and “How Do I Show You the Hole in My Heart?”

Tarrier said she helped restart the discontinued music program at the correctional facility. The musicians had been practicing together for years. There were composers and arrangers among them, and she knew there were abundant talented individuals behind the walls yearning to express themselves.

“Songs in the Key of Free is a great example of a client with a multiplier effect,” Kosuri said. “By helping that organization, we help all of the incarcerated individuals it champions and works with. Entrepreneurship as a reentry strategy is a prime focus of ours.”

That same mission has been on display with Down North Pizza, a former and current client that exclusively hires people who have been incarcerated in the past, helping them start new culinary careers.

“We’ve been able to create a voice in the hospitality industry and have been a catalyst for change,” said Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, the restaurant’s founder and owner. Abdul-Hadi also provides civilians returning to society with reduced-cost housing, legal representation, and transportation—all to reduce recidivism in the community.

The results have been remarkable. In 2021, The New York Times named Down North one of its 50 most exciting restaurants, and Philadelphia magazine awarded the eatery with Best Square Pizza.

headshot of Manvir Dhaliwal L'24 Manvir Dhaliwal L’24Focused on community impact, the restaurant’s founder and owner, Abdul-Hadi, created the Down North Foundation to provide direct aid and emotional support to youths in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, where the pizza shop is located, who have been affected by the carceral system. In one initiative, the Foundation established a garden in a West Philadelphia juvenile justice center where individuals can grow food in addition to taking weekly agricultural and culinary courses.

Abdul-Hadi said a lawyer friend put him in touch with the ELC, which executed an operating agreement for his restaurant. Now he’s back for a second round and a more detailed assignment for the ELC that involves company structure and long-term goals for a proposed new venture – a cafe at 50th and Walnut streets called Out West.

He is happy to work again with students, whom he called “very helpful and very knowledgeable.”

The feeling is mutual. ELC students Katia Cardoza L’24 and Manvir Dhaliwal L’24 described their work with Abdul-Hadi—which included researching business structures, learning tax law, and developing client presentations—as rewarding. Cardoza and Dhaliwal said the clinic provided them with an opportunity to collaborate with each other and with the client, as well as learn about time management. Those skills will come in handy after graduation as Cardoza engages in mergers & acquisitions work at Skadden Arps and Dhaliwal practices litigation at Davis Polk.

“Really trying to focus on discrete tasks and explaining legal terms in layman’s language has been helpful and will continue helping me in my career,” Dhaliwal said.

Cardoza, who did public service work before law school, added, “Muhammad has so many wonderful ideas. He’s having a big impact in the community. Being a part of that is just a great last experience for me at the Law School.”

Founded in 1981 with Wharton, the Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic (ELC) provides pro bono transactional legal services to Philadelphia area entrepreneurs and businesses. The Clinic has a special focus on serving underrepresented entrepreneurs and social impact start-ups. ELC is one of eight in-house clinics that comprise the Gittis Legal Clinics, Penn Carey Law’s teaching law firm.

Learn more about the Gittis Legal Clinics at Penn Carey Law.