PUBLISHED:August 15, 2013

Alumni Highlights: Duke Law grads and entrepreneurs discuss their Durham-based educational startup

Upswing founders

Upswing founders Melvin Hines (JD ’09, MBA ’11), Alex Pritchett, and Monique McNellie (JD ’09).

Monique McNellie (JD ’09) and Melvin Hines (JD ’09, MBA ’11) are the founders of Upswing, an online marketplace that delivers academic coaching and resources to underserved students. They took time out of their frenetic schedules to tell us a bit about the life of Duke Law grads who have chosen the entrepreneurial path.

What are you up to these days?

Melvin: Because it is the summer time and students are less focused on academics now, we have been focusing on building out a much better and more robust product for our users. Unlike the students in our pilot programs this past Spring, our Fall students will be able to learn from their peers next door, or even from professors hundreds of miles away. We are also working with local institutions to learn their needs and incorporate them into our system.  In addition, we are on the ground talking to our future customers and researching ways to make our platform more valuable and therefore attractive to them.  We are also in the process of raising funds.  We speak with investors frequently and we encourage anyone interested in becoming an investor to contact us for opportunities to invest in Upswing.  Also, we’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign!

You sound busy! What does your daily routine involve?

Monique: Routine…what’s that?!   Each day is so different, but because our summer is really focused on two key things – building quality and generating awareness – our routine consists of a few core things among a sea of change. We work daily with our developers to incorporate new levels of Upswing features for our students. We also have been reaching out to key institutions and investors to ensure that they are kept up-to-date on our advancements. Finally, we are in “gear-up” mode. We expect to be even busier once back-to-school season begins, so we want to make sure we are ready.

How did Duke help you along this path?

Monique: During law school, Duke helped by providing an environment in which we could explore our creativity and set out-of-the-box goals.  For example, we began our first education-based project together while in law school at Duke, which became the impetus for the founding of the Duke Forum for Law & Social Change, where the first year’s theme was “Educational Inequality.” Getting the school to approve and back this new law review and annual symposium was challenging, but we found support amongst many of the students, professors, and administrators at Duke.  The entire process gave us confidence to step off the beaten path and onto the road less traveled.  Since then, I’ve spent time teaching and and mentoring students in NYC and worked with several start-up companies. Meanwhile, Melvin attended Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, where he met other education-minded people. Through interactions with some of his classmates there, he began the groundwork for Upswing. I loved the idea and joined the team.  (Also, after law school I worked in the complex litigation department of Weil, Gotshal & Manges in NYC and Melvin worked for a pharmaceutical consulting firm called Best Practices in Chapel Hill where he eventually became Head of Research and Advisory Services and was their legal advisor.)

Even with the great training you’ve had, what is one thing you wish you’d known before becoming an entrepreneur?

Melvin: I wish I had recognized how important and valuable the skills you learn in Mock Trial and Moot Court were. There are so many instances in and outside of the start-up environment where you are required to think on your feet.  I would say that Moot Court, especially, is important.

What’s one lesson you would share with others?

Melvin: Swim against the current. It can be easy for someone to define success as a function of “What is everyone else doing?” and “How do I compare to them?” One thing being at Duke has taught me is that taking the road less traveled is riskier, but also much more rewarding.

Monique: Don’t be afraid to value and prioritize your happiness.  This means having the courage to go after what you want and don’t leave room for regret on the table.

How does being a part of something like Groundwork Labs [a Durham start-up accelerator] help you and your project?

Melvin: What GWL  does more than anything else is allow us the space and time to look inward. Once you’ve decided to begin a start-up, it is very easy to keep your head down and drive the ship forward, never taking a look to see whether the internal parts of the ship are functioning efficiently. GWL makes sure that we have the focus that we need, both internally and externally.

Monique: GWL provides office space for Upswing and several other start-ups so we get to work side by side with other start-ups.  Constantly being around other people that are facing similar challenges to ours is helpful.  GWL provides mentorship, a speaker series on topics relevant to start ups and provides “gurus” who are experts in various relevant subjects.  All of these resources help us stay focused and moving forward.

Is there one book, anecdote, song, movie, etc. that has especially inspired you?

Melvin: Monique and I watched a documentary filmed just down the road called “If You Build It”. It featured two entrepreneurs seeking to make a difference in the world, little by little. Their work in Windsor may never make the front page of the New York Times, but for the 30 students in their class at that point in time, it made a huge impact. This is what we want for Upswing. We’ve never thought that our one platform could end all educational inequality, but our goal is to do our part to make some portion of the world better.

Why is entrepreneurship important for our communities?

Melvin: “When we first tell people about our platform the first thing we’re typically asked is “Are you non-profit?” This is a fundamental mistake. One thing I learned from a conversation with my colleague, iContact founder Ryan Allis, is that the best vehicle to drive social change is business.  Businesses have the power to create so many jobs in regions that need them. Here at Upswing our platform thrives off of people looking to generate income for themselves, but in order to generate that income they have to educate others.  So we are acutely aware of the type of impact we can have not just through the country, but also across the globe.  Creating a sustainable profitable business model that has the effect of creating a positive social change seems to be the best way to get social change to happen.

What does the entrepreneurial community need most?

Melvin: The entrepreneurial community needs more women. My experience has been that women either are underrepresented among start-ups, or are working on projects aimed solely at women. As a result, we lose out on ideas and experiences that can benefit all of society. I hope we can see a change here in the short term.