At the Starting Point
BC Law Aids Smarter in the City, a unique initiative for Boston-area minority entrepreneurs
Dudley Square in Roxbury is not a place readily associated with entrepreneurs. So when Gilad Rosenzweig, an MIT-educated architect, urban planner and founder of the high-tech accelerator Smarter in the City, announced his plans to provide six months of free workspace and professional mentorship for minority entrepreneurs in the heart of one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, his vision was met with some cynicism from those accustomed to seeing entrepreneurial investment directed across the Charles River to Kendall Square.
One of the exceptions, Rosenzweig says, was Boston College Law School Dean Vince Rougeau, who immediately offered the services of BC Law students to provide all facets of legal assistance to the five high-tech start-ups Rosenzweig had chosen for Smarter in the City’s first cohort.
Less than three months into the semester, both parties say, the result has been a highly successful, mutually beneficial collaboration that has provided coveted hands-on experience for BC’s third-year law students, and invaluable legal work in incorporation, contracts, taxation and intellectual property that the aspiring entrepreneurs desperately need and could not otherwise afford.
It is an exercise in experiential learning, Rougeau says, that provides a new way of thinking about what law students can do to prepare themselves for the ever-changing world of corporate law. Just as importantly, he says, it is an investment in the inner city and in minority-led innovation that reflects the mission and core values of BC Law.
The leaders of the five startups — Post Game Fashion, Practice Gigs, Mbadika, HeadThought and KillerBoomBox.com — all describe the legal expertise they have received from the students as indispensable to their quest to successfully launch their businesses, with many saying they have actually restructured their business models as a result of the legal advice.
“The work of our law student, Andrew Lee, has provided an amazing benefit for us that has redefined our corporate structure,” said Hazel Zengemi, the chief technology officer for Mbadika, a social venture startup committed to fostering youth-driven entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa. “We were set up as an LLC as a result of an MIT competition, but it did not seem to resonate with our business plan. Andrew listened to our concerns and then advised us to pursue non-profit status. I am an MIT graduate and technology expert who does not know the law, and legal advice is so expensive, so getting this service for free was indispensable to us.
“Andrew is also directing our incorporation and patent efforts in our proposed markets of Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa, all of which frees us up to focus on our entrepreneurial strengths.”
The law students, in turn, say that the partnership has given them direct transactional experience in the innovation economy, experience that will be crucial to their own future success as business lawyers.
“All of us have studied corporations, but until you have practical experience you can’t fully realize what transactional law entails,” said Laura Gallo of Cranford, NJ, who received her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University. “I am writing bylaws, forming a non-profit organization, researching tax laws and addressing issues of intellectual property for a client I greatly admire. Working with Gilad on behalf of Smarter in the City gave me a unique opportunity to help him see his vision come to fruition. It is dynamic, exciting work that is also very satisfying.”
Kelly Hinkel of North Smithfield, RI, a Lafayette College graduate, works with entrepreneur Keith Donaldson of the startup HeadThought, which has devised a mobile application to improve information flow and conversations across multiple channels.
“This internship has helped me to gain direct, practical experience in a way I would not have been afforded as an intern at a law firm,” she says. “There are a lot of issues to be dealt with on a moving basis, which makes it challenging, and the direct contact with my client and opposing attorneys is so helpful in applying what I have learned in the classroom. My classmates who do transactional law tell me they are jealous of my experience.”
The internships at Smarter in the City are made possible through the Legal Services LAB in the Law School’s Center for Experiential Learning, which is described by Associate Dean for Experiential Learning Paul Tremblay as a “law firm within a law school.”
“Our LAB clinics offer students the opportunity to practice law as lead counsel with full responsibility for all of the legal work on behalf of inspiring new businesses,” said Tremblay. “The Smarter in the City projects are especially exciting because the entrepreneurs working at the incubator are engaged in such cutting-edge work. The startups need sophisticated and complex legal assistance, which our students are ready to offer.
“It also helps that the Smarter in the City cohort is developing innovative startup projects that could really take off someday. This is a terrific way for students to learn how to be effective, productive lawyers.”
BC Law Professor Alfred C. Yen, who directs the school’s business law program, agrees.
“The Smarter in the City partnership is valuable because it gives students first-hand experience in how disparate areas of our curriculum combine in the business world,” said Yen. “It’s particularly valuable to the education we provide because, although teachers mention how intellectual property, contract, and corporate law combine with others, it isn’t until a student sees the importance of different areas of law to a single client that the message really hits home.”
The partnership is central to the vision that Rougeau has articulated for BC Law: to prepare his students to use their talents to reshape the world around them. “In addition to the practical experiential opportunities it provides, this collaboration connects us to our social justice commitment in our outreach to people of color in Boston,” said Rougeau. “It’s a most productive and empowering way to fulfill our mission.”
That vision resonates with the program’s founder.
“From day one, entrepreneurs must learn answers to questions regarding how to start a company: What do I need to know regarding trademark infringements and protecting intellectual property? Where might I be liable?” said Rosenzweig. “The BC Law students provide answers to these questions. They tell me that they love the experience because there are wonderful problems and learning opportunities here, but I know they also love being a part of something bigger.
“We are addressing the lack of opportunity for entrepreneurs in inner-city neighborhoods and minority communities. We are showing a new face to the city and the high-tech sector to get over the misconception of what people are capable of. We are creating equality in the city, and thanks to the entrepreneurs, the mentors and BC Law students, I know we can make a difference.”