Podcast Transcript – Series TWO, Episode 34
Sonja Ebron, courtroom5 June 2021
[00:00:00] Sonja Ebron: [00:00:00] I am from Durham, North Carolina.
[00:00:05] How does this calculator work? But also how does this person work?
[00:00:09] Believe me, I am always trying to find a way to do things simpler.
[00:00:15] Really. Wasn’t interested at all in that tenure track thing.
[00:00:18] I got some research money and built a solar energy laboratory. On the top of my engineering building.
[00:00:24] The average cost of a lawyer is $300. Right now, the average American makes a 10th of that.
[00:00:31] Black people in particular are extremely innovative.
[00:00:35] You’re never going to be a billionaire. It’s selling someone else’s product.
[00:00:38] We’re dealing with a broken business model in the legal profession.
[00:00:42] We don’t have to always win, but we ought to have the right to be heard.
[00:00:48] Dan: [00:00:48] What’s up Unfound Nation, Dan Kihanya here. Thanks so much for checking out another episode of Founders Unfound, that was Dr. Sonja Ebron co-founder and CEO of Courtroom5, a company that makes an [00:01:00] automated legal toolbox that helps people represent themselves in court. Sonja has one of the amazing backgrounds, engineering academia, a repeat entrepreneur, but it took a challenging experience of our own with the legal system.
[00:01:12] To unleash your mission and passion for the startup life. She has a strong conviction that fairness and the justice system shouldn’t depend on unequitable access to knowledge or resources and our conversation. She talked about the allure of engineering doing a startup in Durham, North Carolina, and so much more so when he has a great story. So listen in.
[00:01:32] Our episode is sponsored by Founders Live, a global platform, built to inspire, educate, and entertain the modern entrepreneur. Be sure to visit founders live.com or check for a link in the show notes.
[00:01:43] Before we continue, please make sure to like, and subscribe the podcast we’re available anywhere you get podcasts, even YouTube. So appreciate everyone in Unfound nation who shows up to listen to the great founders we get on the show. And they appreciate it too. And if you like what you hear drop us a [00:02:00] five-star review on Apple or podchaser.com. And one quick note on this episode, we had a few technical challenges which can happen from time to time.
[00:02:07] So don’t be alarmed if the sound changes a bit partway through the episode.
[00:02:11] Now on with the episode, stay safe and hope you enjoy.
[00:02:29] Hello and welcome to Founders Unfound, spotlighting, the best startups you don’t know yet, we bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented and underestimated backgrounds. This is another episode in our continuing series on founders of African descent. I’m your host, Dan Kihanya. Let’s get on it.
[00:02:46] Today, we have Dr. Sonja Ebron Co-founder and CEO of Courtroom5, a company that makes an automated legal toolbox that helps people represent themselves in court. Welcome to the show. Sonja. We’re so happy to [00:03:00] have you on. Thanks for making the time
[00:03:02] Sonja Ebron: [00:03:02] I’ve been looking forward to it. Dan. Thanks so much for having me.
[00:03:05] Dan: [00:03:05] Terrific. So let’s just start quickly with help the listeners understand exactly what is Courtroom5.
[00:03:11] Sonja Ebron: [00:03:11] Awesome. As you said, it’s an automated legal toolbox for people handling more complex civil cases in court. You don’t need us for a traffic ticket or your eviction case or small claims, but if you’re handling a foreclosure or an employment discrimination case, that’d be a medical malpractice suit.
[00:03:29] As millions of Americans are each year on your own, then you need Courtroom5. We are the only solution for people to manage those complex cases without a lawyer.
[00:03:39]Dan: [00:03:39] I love it. And I think it was brilliant and disruptive and an industry that is, I love businesses that like, it’s been the same way for like hundreds of years.
[00:03:48] And the only technology benefit is to the supply side, where they make it a little easier for them to deliver the same thing, but charge the same amount. So I love the idea and the concept and the vision. But before we dive [00:04:00] more into the company, let’s hear a little bit more about you. Can you tell us about where you grew up and where you’re from?
[00:04:07] Sonja Ebron: [00:04:07] I am from Durham, North Carolina, my hometown I’ve traveled over mostly the Southeast around the country, but we relocated back to Durham a couple of years ago to really give Courtroom5. The home it needed here. Loved the people, love the culture. It’s just the perfect place to run a startup these days.
[00:04:25] So that’s my background. I’m an electrical engineer by trade a PhD. Electrical engineer. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t have any formal legal training at all. My co-founder and I got into this project because we found ourselves over the years getting sued or having to Sue people, not having the resources to hire a lawyer.
[00:04:44] Most folks don’t understand just how expensive that whole process is. And so we thought, Hey, we’re pretty smart. We gotta be able to handle this ourselves. Not so the law doesn’t make any rational sense whatsoever. And so we got our butts kicked a couple of times until we figured out [00:05:00] how to navigate the system, realize there were a lot of people, many who look like us, but who didn’t have the sort of educational advantages we did, but who needed to know what we’d learned.
[00:05:11] And so that’s sort of how we got into Courtroom5. My Co-founder Deborah is a PhD librarian. It’s really one of the smartest people, wonderful people that I know in the world. And so, as I said, she was in the same situation, right? How do we get the information that people need to know to them effectively without being a lawyer?
[00:05:31] And so that’s sort of how we fell into Courtroom5. It’s been a blessing ever since.
[00:05:36]Dan: [00:05:36] I love it. But let’s turn back a little bit. So I want to know more about how do you become an engineer? What in you when you were younger? Because I was an engineer, I graduated with an engineering degree. I no longer practice as they say, but I’m just curious.
[00:05:51] Were you analytical? Did you like problem-solving where you were a tinkerer? Like how did you end up in engineering at first? Yeah.
[00:05:58] Sonja Ebron: [00:05:58] I’ve always been a [00:06:00] tinkerer, not just with, uh, devices and machines and that sort of stuff. But frankly, with everything I wanted to just understand the process behind everything, there seemed to me just intuitively that there was some logic to how everything worked.
[00:06:15] Strangely enough, I’m in the law where that’s not the case, but, but, uh, but early on, you know, I felt there was an order to the universe and that it had to be present everywhere and I wanted to understand it. So sure. How does this. Calculator work, but also how does this person work? What drives this person?
[00:06:34] Right? How does this political system work? How does this economic system work? There seemed to be, they seemed to have to be some logic or patterns that you could identify and use to make things work better. And I was just always really curious about those things, but it was the, and I’m dating myself.
[00:06:52] This is back in the eighties, seventies, and eighties, where. There was a huge impetus on getting black people in particular [00:07:00] into engineering. I didn’t know any engineers that never heard of the field. Nobody in my family was an engineer, but there were folks on TV and on radio saying, if you know your math and science, you know, we need more black engineers.
[00:07:13] And so my mom took that to heart and. It just corralled me into engineering school here in North Carolina, and particularly in Durham and Raleigh, we’ve got some really good engineering schools. I ended up at North Carolina State, which has just a fantastic engineering program and it has for, for many decades.
[00:07:31] And so I ended up there. One of the first black students on the campus, strong support. Sure. Primarily with the social environment, but I made it through. And one of the things you might know, Dan, as an engineer is that the secret to our success is trying to find innovative ways to do things so that we don’t have to do them manually.
[00:07:51] Right. And I really took to that as I’m one of the laziest people in the world, as it turns out
[00:08:01] [00:08:00] it is the secret to my success. I am always trying to find a way to do things simpler. Again, trying to find the pattern that makes this thing work so that we can automate it and people don’t have to do it. And so I did really well in engineering school. I had done well in math and science in high school.
[00:08:20] And so, you know, I came fairly prepared. I did really well. I graduated, I was invited to go to graduate school again, I didn’t know too many people who had gone to graduate school and didn’t know much about that process, but was offered a full ride to grad school. And so I took it. Always easier, right?
[00:08:37] Because I’m one of the laziest people in the world always easier to get in a real job and stay in school. And so that’s, uh, that’s what I did.
[00:08:44]Dan: [00:08:44] Nice. And so it sounds like your family, your mom was supportive and encouraging of this direction. So that’s, I think there’s this combination of nature and nurture, right?
[00:08:55] Like you have it in you and if there’s an environment that will [00:09:00] celebrate and endorse that it makes it easier to settle it, that shine. So it sounds like you had that and. It’s really interesting to hear about the social aspects. But I think people underestimate the power of the social dynamic in college.
[00:09:13] And especially if it’s bringing together people from culturally disparate places, there’s obviously a vision around that being a benefit in the long run, but in the short term, that can be, that can be hard actually, if you feel like you’re part of this smaller group that there aren’t that many of
[00:09:31] Sonja Ebron: [00:09:31] yeah.
[00:09:32] It was very isolating. I, uh, you know, my high school was probably about 40% black. I remember having conversations about alternating the ethnicity of the homecoming king and queen, because we were always battling and we had some fairly progressive. For the times fairly progressive our leadership at our high school, both on the student council and the adults, the teachers and principals.
[00:09:54] And so we were able to just sit around a coffee table and work those things out. That was great, [00:10:00] but it was because there were so many. Black and Latino kids in the school. And so when I got to NC State, I think their ratio hadn’t changed much, frankly, since I was there, it’s about 6% black. It was a bit of a culture shock.
[00:10:14] You know, it just a shock of being an apology environment. There were tens of thousands of students on that campus, even then. Many more now and then seeing so few black students, um, you know, it was, it was like difficult, but it’s one of many shocks I’ve had to, you know, many other people have had to deal with over the years.
[00:10:31] And so you deal with what you have in front of you.
[00:10:34] Dan: [00:10:34] Well, I’m impressed. And I, and especially since you kind of went on to the full sort of the height of academia, and I would imagine that there’s, once you get to those PhD levels, there’s a big draw to becoming an academic yourself. And that sort of maybe how you ended up being a professor.
[00:10:52] Sonja Ebron: [00:10:52] Yes, absolutely. It was a, you know, you’re almost on a track towards academia. I had some opportunities to go into the corporate [00:11:00] world as well as the coming out of PhD program, but I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I did some of that in graduate school and enjoyed it a great deal. So yeah, going into academia was very easy.
[00:11:12] I wasn’t prepared and really wasn’t interested at all in that tenure track thing. I never did the tenure process. It just never made any sense to me, rightly that you could work hard for a few years and have a job for life. I wasn’t incentivized by that at all. But I know, you know, I, I have a lot of respect for the profession and for people who seek that track and that’s great.
[00:11:33] It wasn’t for me, I really loved being in front of students. I enjoyed some research, some technical research. I’ve got some fairly well-cited scholarship out there, but it wasn’t a love for me, you know? I, as soon as I took my first teaching job, I got some research money and built a solar energy laboratory on the top of my engineering building, primarily because I wanted to learn it.
[00:11:56] We, you know, I studied electrical engineering. I had no [00:12:00] course in solar, electricity, mind you, this was in Florida. Uh, where I got my doctorate. Right. And how can you be in the sunshine state and never have a course in electrical engineering on solar electric car. So I wanted to learn it. So I got some funding to build that out.
[00:12:13] I taught a couple of courses on it again, primarily for selfish reasons. If you want to learn something, try to teach it right. And so it did that. And then. Quickly found myself in my first entrepreneurial venture, selling solar electric modules for motor homes at Florida. At the time we grew by about a million vehicles every winter, because folks were coming down from the north where it was really cold to spend their winter time in sunny, Florida.
[00:12:41] And. They would oftentimes have to spend the night in these smelly, dirty motor home parks, you know, uh, where they really wanted to park on the beach, right. Or in front of a lake and you needed to charge a battery in order to do that. So we started selling those many, many years [00:13:00] ago. So that’s how I started.
[00:13:01] I found myself in entrepreneurship. I ended up quitting my college job during some international travel because solar electricity was taking off around the world. So I got to travel with some government officials to some really interesting places. And that was great. That business died out over after a few years.
[00:13:17] And I went back to teaching college. Loved it. Absolutely loved it. I switched my focus to HBC use at that point. Found a love bear. So. Talked to her a little while at Norfolk state jump the bridge, as we say, and, uh, went over to Hampton for a little while and then got smacked upside the head by another entrepreneurial venture and left to go do that.
[00:13:39] So I ended up running an energy cooperative in Atlanta for many years. So yeah, I’ve been in and out of academia all this time. Finally left it alone. Oh, many years ago.
[00:13:49] Dan: [00:13:49] Yeah, that’s great. So, so this is interesting. So you’re you even and out. So I know a lot of academics and they do have some obviously [00:14:00] innovative DNA, but sometimes almost the commercialization is enough front to them.
[00:14:05] Like it’s like, I want to do the purity of research. So I’m curious, like that first opportunity with solar, like. What was the sort of the moment where you said, you know, this is much more interesting selling these things or the economics of the business or the customer side of the market. What was that moment like?
[00:14:23] Like when you said, yeah, this is better than academics, or this is something I want to pursue more than, than what I want to do in academics.
[00:14:29] Sonja Ebron: [00:14:29] Yeah. Yeah. I, you know, I got into this solar again because I want it to learn it, but bill, you know, with fairly well-developed, it’s grown tremendously sad. So the research wasn’t complete fan, but I wasn’t actually doing research serious research on the development of solar modules.
[00:14:47] I was doing research on how to use them, right. For commercial applications. Right. And so. That was fantastic, but that’s what naturally led me into trying to sell them. I was already on the commercial side, in my [00:15:00] research. I wasn’t trying to improve the efficiency of the modules or, you know, make them work better in some ways.
[00:15:06] I, yeah, I wasn’t on the heavy tech side. I was on the usability side of it in my research. So it was a fairly natural, you know, when you see a huge market, a new idea, and nobody was doing that at the time, it just made a lot of sense to me. And I always had an entrepreneurial bone in my body. That being an academia just was not satisfying.
[00:15:25] Dan: [00:15:25] Yeah, that makes sense. And I do think that there is, I wouldn’t say it’s a gene, but there is some predetermination in us. I think about being an entrepreneur because somebody else in that situation could have said, I’ll go and pitch GE or I’ll go and pitch an energy company about this and see if they want to license it.
[00:15:43] Then either go work for them as a researcher, or just keep going down the academic route. But something in you said, you know what, let me go see if I can figure out this on my own. So you must have that in you. I do
[00:15:56] Sonja Ebron: [00:15:56] I do. And I go back and forth a lot about which just expressed there [00:16:00] is a gene of sorts or an instinct for entrepreneurs.
[00:16:03] And many people think entrepreneurs are born and not nurtured, but at the same time, I’ve also been nurtured a lot. And my grandfather ran a corner store. For instance, I’ve had relatives who run oh, dry cleaners restaurants, you know, small businesses that way, what I’m doing. Maybe on a different scale, but it’s not all that different when it comes down to it, you’ve got to solve somebody’s problem, you know, and I think that is something that almost everybody wants to do, whether we call it entrepreneurship or not.
[00:16:34] There are those, as you said, academics who have, you know, it’s some, some innovation to them, maybe a lack of education on entrepreneurship. That’s keeping them in academia rather than out, you know, solving problems and the so-called real world here.
[00:16:50] Dan: [00:16:50] Yeah, that, yeah. That’s an interesting thing to explore for sure.
[00:16:54] But, so then you had the second company, right? Tell us about that really quickly.
[00:16:58] Sonja Ebron: [00:16:58] It was great. I [00:17:00] just had a, an inspiration that we, as black people spent so much money right outside of our communities. I don’t recall the statistics, but you know, dollars that come into the black communities, don’t stay a long time.
[00:17:13] All right. We have our mortgages, our rent, we have our utilities, we have our food and very little of that is produced within our communities. Right. And so money comes in. Money goes out. It feels almost like we are money launderers in many respects. Right. And I felt that my focus had been on utilities as an electrical engineer in particular electric utilities.
[00:17:35] And I had begun to learn, learn more about the business side of how those utilities operated. And I just felt that we, as black communities needed to do more with the money that we did have, we needed to hold onto it just a little bit longer. If we could. And so I had an idea that in deregulated energy markets, that’s where you don’t have a monopoly, you have many [00:18:00] suppliers trying to sell you your utilities, that there may have been an opportunity for us to play that game in a way that kept more money in our communities for just a few minutes longer, really?
[00:18:10] Right. To do some good. And so the idea for black energy, as it turned out, we named the company was to go into a deregulated utilities market and negotiate amongst the suppliers. This is not something you would have had an opportunity to do with the monopoly, but you could negotiate amongst the suppliers to be able to serve a block.
[00:18:30] Of consumers. And as a result of that, maybe you could get lower rates for those consumers, but also allow those consumers to aggregate their energy dollars and devote them to some nonprofits that were doing good work in black communities. And so that was what we did. We did that for about 10 or 11 years in Atlanta, Atlanta and Georgia larger had natural gas deregulation.
[00:18:56] So there were at the time maybe 19 or 20. Natural gas [00:19:00] suppliers that we could talk to. And we had conversations with almost all and settled on two or three over the years that gave us really good deals for our blocks of consumers. And so we did that. We also paired it with energy efficiency, equipment, some light bulbs, toilet, um, uh, water saving devices, shower devices, and that sort of stuff.
[00:19:19] They tell people lower their utility bills as well. So, yeah, it was great. It was wonderful. It was probably a bigger vision than I could have executed on my own. We didn’t do venture capital or that sort of fundraising for that company. As it turned out the opportunity and deregulation was not as large as I thought it was.
[00:19:39] Uh, it stopped growing. And in fact, I think right now, most states are still having a monopoly supplier. So the market didn’t grow the way I thought it would. And we started got bottleneck and Georgia, which is not a bad place to do business. But nonetheless, it never took off the way I thought it would.
[00:19:53] And then while I was treading water there, the, um, financial crisis hit and he pretty much took us [00:20:00] out. And so, uh, I let that company, uh, gracefully decline and went back to teaching for a little while. And so I figured out what next to do.
[00:20:08] Dan: [00:20:08] Nice. I mean, not nice that you had to go through that experience, but tremendous learning.
[00:20:13] And, and it’s really interesting because we’re going to get ready to talk about Courtroom5. I see this initial spark of economic empowerment with business opportunity and social impact weaving itself together in that company. And so, but we’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with Sonja Ebron from Courtroom5.
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[00:21:26] Dan: [00:21:26] So we’re back with Sonja from Courtroom5, Dr. Sonja Ebron. So we were just talking about your last company and sort of the re-emergence back into teaching. And so where did Courtroom5 come from? Like what was the spark for the concept for Courtroom5?
[00:21:42] Sonja Ebron: [00:21:42] Wow. You know, I love teaching as I mentioned earlier, but I knew by the time I got back into it, that it was going to be a very short journey for me.
[00:21:50] I was not committed to an academic career. Would never be. And so I spent the time trying to decide what’s the next idea. And you know, their ideas [00:22:00] everywhere, really for billion-dollar businesses. There’s a process for finding them, but they’re really not that hard to find for me, as you mentioned, it has to be coupled with some sort of social justice mission.
[00:22:14] I just, I’m not cut out to just make money, unfortunately. Right. But I was looking for something that, where I could have some social impact and make money do good while doing well. And so, yeah, my co-founder Deborah and I were trying to, we decided we wanted to do business together. Got my electrical engineering chops, my technical chops.
[00:22:35] She had great information, discovery jobs as the librarian and information scientists. And so we knew, and it company would be something that we would end up doing. And we explored a number of concepts over, I don’t know, 18 months or so. And finally, you know, decided that, uh, litigation support would be where we needed to go.
[00:22:56] I knew a lot about electrical engineering and techie stuff. [00:23:00] She knew a lot about information and how people search for it and use it. But the thing we decided we both knew best was how to represent ourselves in court independently. We’d had some cases that we lost and some we’d won and had to learn something that we discovered many other people needed to learn.
[00:23:17] And so that is sort of where we decided to apply our awareness, to devote our talents who was on helping people defend themselves in court.
[00:23:26] Dan: [00:23:26] What made you decide to represent yourselves in the situations where you would have had a lawyer if you had chosen it?
[00:23:34] Sonja Ebron: [00:23:34] Yeah, because money lawyers are very expensive.
[00:23:39] The average cost of a lawyer is $300. Right now, the average American makes a 10th of that. Right? The average wage is less than $30 an hour, and it’s just not feasible. We’re dealing with a broken. Business model and the legal profession. So there are two kinds of lawyers, right? There’s the corporate lawyer.
[00:23:59] They [00:24:00] serve businesses and you know, they do corporate law. And then there are the consumer lawyers, what everybody calls ambulance chases. Right. But folks who are dealing with, uh, with regular people. And those folks are having a really hard time finding clients right now because most Americans just cannot afford a lawyer on that old classic, full representation model, where you’ve got a legal problem.
[00:24:22] You walk into a lawyer’s office, you explain your problem. They say, okay, I’ll take your case. I need a $5,000 retainer. Right. And if you’re lucky enough to have $5,000 to retain that lawyer and have a second conversation good for you. Most Americans have trouble finding $400 right now in an emergency.
[00:24:40] Okay. But even if you do have that $5,000 last, you very long. The lawyer is going to come back in some period of time long before your case is resolved and say, you know what? I didn’t expect the opposition to be so tough, but they filed this and then that, and then that, and I’m going to need another 15, $20,000 to take this further.
[00:24:59] Right. [00:25:00] Hey, if you’re lucky enough to have that way to go. Okay. But most of us don’t. And so what has happened is that many, many people can afford to start with a lawyer to retain a lawyer. Very few can afford to get their cases resolved with a lawyer. And of course, there’s the vast majority of us that can’t ever get that lawyer to begin with.
[00:25:21] So what folks do. These are very complicated cases. These are not what you see on television. I’ll put it that way. Judge Judy’s court, judge Joe Brown and, and those folks, you know, we’ve all seen that on television. That’s not real court and real court. You’re probably going to file dozens. Sometimes hundreds of technical legal documents.
[00:25:42] They have to be formatted in a certain way. They have to speak to a judge in a certain way, just to get you to the next step. In your case, some of these cases take years for you to get. An actual decision based on the facts of your case, right? You may think you have a great case because the facts are in your paper.
[00:25:58] You may even have evidence [00:26:00] to back up those facts to prove those facts. But if you don’t go through the right procedures to get those facts heard you’re out of luck. You will never have a decision based on backs. They will be based on some procedures, whether you actually were able to get to a hearing on those facts.
[00:26:16] And most Americans, most people without legal knowledge have no way to navigate those processes. And so my profile Debra and I had gone through those things, and we’d learned a little bit more, a little bit more each case, unfortunately, this happened to us multiple times. And so we just learned over time, we learned pretty quickly.
[00:26:35] Right as academics and in training to be academics. So we, um, you know, we got to a place where we were able to navigate those things and to compete with a lawyer in court and around about that time, and we were having the discussion on what kind of business do we want? We were like, well, who needs what we know?
[00:26:52] Right. Right now I can’t go sell solar cells, solar modules on motor homes, that standard mini motor homes already come with these [00:27:00] tests. Right. Denver did not have as much entrepreneurial experience, but she had lots of experience with regular people coming into the libraries with their questions and knowing how to distribute that information to them.
[00:27:11] So anyway, we decided that the thing we knew best was how to represent ourselves in court. And that there were desperate people out there who needed that information. And so that’s what got us into it and has kept us into it all these years. I mean, we are, we’re helping people save their homes, get better settlements than they might expect in their debt collection cases.
[00:27:31] So they’re not having their wages, garnished, you know, that sort of thing. We’re helping people keep their kids right, or get access to their kids. It’s, um, a very broad range of cases that people are handling on our platform. And I mean, we’re just grateful to be able to serve in that way every day.
[00:27:46] Dan: [00:27:46] That’s great, but tell us a little bit more how it works. So like how, like, if I’m a customer, I guess you’d call me a client of a Courtroom5. Like, what is it I’m doing? What am I getting? How does it, how does it work?
[00:27:59] Sonja Ebron: [00:27:59] Yeah. [00:28:00] So people come to us at all stages of their lubrication, right? So if you are preparing to Sue somebody or you’ve just been sued, you know, you’re very early in your case, we have other folks who come to us after they’ve actually lost and may want to appeal a judgment, right.
[00:28:16] And get that thing overturned and everywhere in between. Again, this is a very long process. And so what we do is we capture the information about where you are in your case, so that we can help you based on where you are. You will tell us what court you were in, what kind of claim you’re dealing with.
[00:28:32] You’ll tell us who the parties are in your case. You’ll tell us what’s been filed in your case. And then you’ll give us a little information about what got you into the lawsuit. One of those underlying facts, right? That caused her lawsuit. You do all that for free, but once you do that, then you pay for a subscription where you can start to handle your case.
[00:28:52] And the process, what happens is we tell you when you are in the whole process of litigation and start pointing you to the [00:29:00] training that is most relevant to you and that step. So if you weren’t at the end of your case that say again, you’ve lost your case. You need to appeal. You don’t really need to worry about how good the complaint was or anything like that.
[00:29:12] Pass that right now, if you’re at the very beginning of the case, by way of contrast, then it’s too early for you to start thinking about what kind of evidence might prove or disprove the facts. You got a lot of procedures to go through before that’s even going to be relevant to you. So we point you to the right training based on where you are.
[00:29:30] Once you’ve had that training. Then we help you decide what your next step should be, right? You’re at this place, there are some, a range of options for you that are going to make the most sense. And so we hope you evaluate those options and decide what you’re going to do. And then once you’ve decided, well, then let’s go analyze your case.
[00:29:47] There are some facts that you’re dealing with. Judge won’t need to hear about them, but you need to start thinking about them. And so we walk you through the elements, the legal elements of whatever your claim or your defense is, might date. [00:30:00] We’ve got all of that available for you. So for instance, if you’re dealing with a, foreclosure case, And let’s say you are in Missouri, right?
[00:30:09] Well then Missouri law says that there are certain things that have to be proven by your bank or servicer in order to kick you out in your house, we show you what those things are. Right? And then you can associate the facts as you know them in your case to those elements and see how good the bank’s case is.
[00:30:27] You’ll have some defenses that you want to apply. You know, maybe this bank was fraudulent, there was some predatory loans or whatever defenses there may be. We show you what they are in the law, what they are for you. And if you’re eligible to make some of those depends. So we walk you through just analyzing your claims
[00:30:43] Dan: [00:30:43] for both sides.
[00:30:44] That’s challenging though, from the perspective on your side of. Like you said, you’re not a lawyer, right. Everybody I talked to, as soon as they give me anything, that sounds like legal advice. I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice. So how do you balance the [00:31:00] direction and information that you give without, you know, sort of bumping up against that?
[00:31:04] Sonja Ebron: [00:31:04] Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great question. We are able to give legal information all day. Every day. We don’t give advice, right. But anybody can go look up the elements of a foreclosure in Missouri. It’s public information. It’s the law, right? It’s just that you don’t know that you need to do that. If you’re a foreclosure dependent and you don’t know how to find the information, that is what our toolbox does for you.
[00:31:31] Dan: [00:31:31] So, I mean, it’s a great story. It’s one of those tremendous opportunities to disrupt an industry. As we talked about before and really changed the way somethings have worked for so long. And I feel like there’s been sort of this tacit collusion between the academic community and the regulatory oversight and the law firms as a business, they all sort of want to keep it as the status quo and it really doesn’t do [00:32:00] justice.
[00:32:00] Or allow people to get justice. So I’m super excited about what you’re doing. And so appreciate that, but tell us, what’s your big vision for the company? Let’s say you’re a success in however way you wanted to find that in a few years economically or impact, what does that look like to you? What does success for Courtroom5 look like to you?
[00:32:23] Sonja Ebron: [00:32:23] Success. I think for us means that people have the right to be heard in court. We’ve got tremendous problems, not just amongst ethnic groups or, you know, age groups, but just in general, folks are not feeling bought in if you will, to the society in which they live. And a part of that is because we don’t have, we aren’t feeling heard in a larger sense by the people who governed us.
[00:32:50] We’ve got three branches of government. So we, you know, have a fragile right to vote. We can participate at the executive [00:33:00] branch at the legislative branch through our collective votes. The justice system though is the one branch of government where we don’t have to be part of a collected in order to get heard, at least on paper.
[00:33:11] We ought to be able to go into a court of law and get a court order to speak to our individual circumstances. That’s set up that way for a reason. And that’s to give individuals that personal buy-in to the society. We don’t have to always win, but we ought to have the right to be heard. And if we don’t have that, it’s questionable, whether you actually have a democracy.
[00:33:35] And so that is really the problem we are working on here, making sure that people have an opportunity, a fair opportunity to be heard by their government and at least a good reason to buy into the society. Because if we don’t, we have all kinds of pathologies happening. If you don’t feel that you’re being heard, that is ultimately the problem that we’re fixing.
[00:33:57] Yes. We expect to [00:34:00] find tremendous financial rewards and all of that is valuable. I’m not turning away a dollar don’t misunderstand me there, but we’re really out to fix a social problem. We want to give people the right to be heard, and that has real meaningful consequences in people’s lives. You know, we have faced the loss of a home.
[00:34:17] Potentially. We have been threatened with having our wages garnished no right or wrong. I mean, sure. I didn’t pay the credit card bill. I’ll readily acknowledge that. I can also tell you it was a predatory loan, right. That I was fighting. And I think many other people find themselves in that situation where you just getting a raw deal from the corporate system, and you want to be able to have a branch of government to take care of you, right.
[00:34:41] At least hear your side of the case. And so that is what we want to do on the ground. Give people a reason to buy into the society that we all live in.
[00:34:50] Dan: [00:34:50] I love it has a great, great vision. And in your passion definitely comes through so well, we’re going to take another short break and we’ll be right back with Sonja Ebron [00:35:00] from Courtroom5.
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[00:35:54] Dan: [00:35:54] So we’re back with Sonja. So tell us a little bit about sort of what Ross Baird [00:36:00] calls the triple-blind spot, right? Which is your, you know, an underrepresented founder. Working on a market that isn’t necessarily obvious to the status quo and you’re doing it in Durham, North Carolina, right. Which isn’t necessarily known for its, I don’t know if there’s a Silicon fill in the blank for it, but it’s not New York or Silicon Valley.
[00:36:23] How do you think about doing your business there as a black woman, founder, focusing on the mission yet you are doing.
[00:36:32] Sonja Ebron: [00:36:32] Yeah, fantastic. So I’m in Durham because I love the city and Deborah was happy to join the here. She went to college here as well, and it’s just a fantastic place to live. Startup ecosystem is beside the point.
[00:36:47] It’s really a wonderful place to be on this earth. And so that’s, I guess our primary reason for being here. But there is also a significant startup ecosystem, a tremendous amount of support, whether it is [00:37:00] from nonprofits, entrepreneurship, educational resources, the angel funders, and venture capital. All of that is, is right here.
[00:37:09] And of course we’ve got three major universities and several others. So we got all the intellectual capital. We need to build the right team for our company as well. It’s a wonderful place to be. Uh, you may know it’s recently in the news. I mean, Silicon Valley is clearing out fairly rapidly in this age of the zoom meeting.
[00:37:29] There’s not a reason for people to have to occupy the Google campus or, or any of those other places. And so folks are heading out of California in droves. And they are relocating to places like Durham. And so we’re, you know, it’s much, much more affordable and all of the academic and intellectual resources you need and cultural resources you need are right here.
[00:37:52] And so we’ve recently had some great news that Google is building a branch and a major office here in Durham, [00:38:00] apple just last week announced that they were investing a billion dollars in a campus. Here as well. And so it’s not just the people that are heading out of California. It’s it’s major industries deciding to build right here in Durham and Raleigh as well.
[00:38:15] It’s a wonderful time for us to be here. Yeah, exactly. It is. It’s fantastic. So we’re, I think going to find, uh, over the next few years that we got all the resources necessary to build the billion-dollar company that we
[00:38:28] Dan: [00:38:28] envisioned. Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. And especially with the university horsepower there and lifestyle and all these things, and you know, it’s funny, we’ve interviewed 30 plus entrepreneurs and they’ve been from all over.
[00:38:45] We actually haven’t interviewed somebody from Silicon Valley where I spent a lot of time myself. So Charlotte, Atlanta. Miami, you know, and I think you’re right about this inflection point of companies realizing that the [00:39:00] physical density around a specific place isn’t necessarily the secret formula to success.
[00:39:05] So, so good for you being an anchor there being one of the ones that they look back in 20 years and say, yeah, Courtroom5 came out of here.
[00:39:14] Sonja Ebron: [00:39:14] Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s what we’re looking for. You want to be able to support my hometown by being a big business with someone to hire lots of people that support other entrepreneurs and some of the nonprofits in the area as
[00:39:26] Dan: [00:39:26] well.
[00:39:27] So as a black woman, founder, do you feel like there’s been some challenges that have been placed in your path that you don’t see others having to go through?
[00:39:38] Sonja Ebron: [00:39:38] No. I think I, in the way I often, uh, answered this is with an analogy to climate change, right? So we know there are, we know the climate is changing and there are some patterns that you can see.
[00:39:49] So we’re having more and more weather, bad weather events, right? Billion-dollar weather events. But. The thing is that you can not look at a specific tornado [00:40:00] or a forest fire or flood and say, okay, that’s because of climate change. Right. That’s sort of the way I look at my experiences in building company and working with investors in that fundraising process and so forth.
[00:40:14] Yeah. There are patterns it’s obviously, obviously there are some serious disadvantages. If all the money is in a certain. Demographic. And some of the better ideas in my opinion are being created by black and brown people and women more largely than, yeah, there are some patterns there. I know that I have to have more meetings with investors than somebody that looks like mark Zuckerberg, right?
[00:40:39] Investors, pattern, match like humans do in general. And the folks that have made a lot of money for investors. Tend to look like mark Zuckerberg, for whatever reasons there are send that’s where a lot of the money is going to flow. Right. Even though the physical characteristics of mark Zuckerberg have absolutely nothing to do with his success, [00:41:00] he can pattern match and they, you know, they pick characteristics that are, that we’re trying to look for.
[00:41:05] So, so that has been a challenge. No doubt about it. But I think at the end of the day, you know, a billion-dollar concept, it’s a billion-dollar concept. And while I have to have more meetings to convey that and to maybe get investors past the fact that I’m a black woman and that, that may have some meaning to them, you know, a billion-dollar businesses, it becomes quite evident here.
[00:41:26] Once we explain what it is we’re doing and the market we’re trying to serve and the pain points of people in that market and the solution that we’ve developed for them, the unique solution we’ve developed for them. Yeah. I mean, I, at the end of the day, we’re going to raise the funds we need to raise. I don’t have absolute confidence in that.
[00:41:44] So it’s a challenge, but yeah, I mean, there are other challenges, right. But to focus on as well. So I don’t spend too much time being concerned about it.
[00:41:55] Dan: [00:41:55] Makes sense, very healthy and it’s sort of that driven perspective of the entrepreneur. Like [00:42:00] show me a wall and I’ll show you a way to get over it under it, around it, through it.
[00:42:04] And that’s, uh, the resilience you need for any entrepreneur, but maybe the flip it around the other way have there, I know you went through, you’ve done Techstars. You’ve been involved with Google, for startups. Have there been organizations or experiences that I’ve been uplifting or put more wind in your sails? As a entrepreneur who happens to be a black woman.
[00:42:24] Sonja Ebron: [00:42:24] Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. I would certainly point to those two. Google is just the continuing powerful resource for us in so many ways. There’s been direct funding from Google. They’ve provided us with intellectual resources as well and credits that we can use in the form of cash in a variety of ways.
[00:42:44] I mean, the support there has been extraordinary Techstars. The network is unbeatable. If we are trying to build a team, if we are trying to reach partners here and there, Techstars that has a nexus to that person or organization [00:43:00] just has been extraordinary there, but also I would point to a CEO organization.
[00:43:06] Funding mechanism where average people, people with a thousand dollars that they can contribute to a, to a startup fund can get involved in investing and have that investment go-to people, working on sustainable development goals that the UN has produced. And so we are one of the five women on companies in the US to be a CEO venture this year.
[00:43:28] Uh, that comes with a, five-year no-interest loan that several digits, add it to our bank account as a result of that. And that’s fantastic. But the network there, these group of, uh, women activators, again, each of whom have contributed only a thousand dollars. That’s the limit, right? They are very democratic organization.
[00:43:48] These are women who are in some very powerful positions. In us society who looks to support the startups they funded and some very powerful ways. So we’ve certainly benefited from, uh, from having [00:44:00] access to that network. There are some home grown here at local North Carolina organizations that have been very helpful to us as well.
[00:44:07] We won a couple of years ago, a wonderful grant, a competitive business grant non-dilutive funding just to really get us off the ground. And we’re very happy and grateful to the NC idea foundation for that. A couple of legal tech, uh, incubators and accelerators happened to be local, but they serve a national, uh, audience.
[00:44:28] We were, we went through the duke law incubator for instance, and also the Lexus nexus. If you’re a lawyer, you know that that’s where you get access to your case law and some other resources, but they’ve got a very powerful, very strong accelerator. For legal tech businesses like ours. And so we’ve gotten support from a number, a number of organizations over the years that have helped us and continue to help us, uh, in various ways.
[00:44:52] Dan: [00:44:52] That’s great. That’s great. And I think even five, six years ago, these kinds of resources just were not [00:45:00] as profound and they weren’t casting as wide a net. For those that don’t have, you know, kind of explicit mandates around this. So it’s tremendous to hear that there’s sort of these entities that are both supportive around networks and capital.
[00:45:17] And helping companies at the earliest stages. We all know that this is one of the hardest times when you’re rarely really getting started and, and having something like non-dilutive funding can be so powerful. It’s
[00:45:29] Sonja Ebron: [00:45:29] been extraordinary.
[00:45:30] Dan: [00:45:30] That’s awesome. So my last question is usually the kind of quintessential.
[00:45:36] If you could go back in time and tell yourself some advice. So since you’ve been a repeat entrepreneur and you, usually we ask people, you know, before your entrepreneurial journey began, but you could pick either, you know, before your solar journey, before your energy. Tyranny or before the Courtroom5 journey.
[00:45:56] Like if you could go back in time and talk to the Sonja at any one of [00:46:00] those instances and, and give her advice about what to expect, what to do, what not to do as an entrepreneur. What would you tell her?
[00:46:09] Sonja Ebron: [00:46:09] Yeah, I would tell her that being an entrepreneur is not such an unusual thing. Entrepreneurs are really everywhere.
[00:46:19] Right? I spent so much time asking myself if I was really an entrepreneur, this is really what I’ve set out to do. And it was a waste of effort and energy. I should have just accepted my calling and taken that issue off the table. So I would have absolutely caution against wasting time on those kinds of.
[00:46:36] Questions. Everybody is an entrepreneur in one way or another. Whether you are out to make money or out to solve a problem and a nonprofit organization, or whether you are working for a big company, but on some innovation within it, everybody, I mean, school teachers, everybody is doing something innovative and that’s really what.
[00:46:55] Entrepreneurship is about the other thing though, that I would say is that [00:47:00] black people, in particular, are extremely innovative. We have perhaps through to our history, developed some very sharp innovation skills that I don’t think we appreciate enough. We are natural, almost natural innovators. And therefore, uh, we’ve got an edge on entrepreneurship.
[00:47:18] I would just encourage anybody who has that inclination to just step into it with full competence, because we’ve got strengths, particularly as black people that are not recognized until we demonstrate them. And then one other thing I would add, I would definitely caution myself that there are all kinds of businesses.
[00:47:37] There’s the barbershops, it’s the restaurant. There are service industries everywhere, and, you know, there are grocery stores. There are other folks that sell actual hard products. And then there are the real big companies, the ones that develop innovations that are going to last for years. All of those kinds of companies have developed their own [00:48:00] products.
[00:48:00] I mentioned to you my experience with black energy, you know, we never made any energy, right? No electricity, no natural gas, none of that. And that was never even in the game plan and it should have been. Okay. You’re not really going to be a billion-dollar business, unless you have your own product. You’re never going to be a billion-dollar business selling someone else’s product.
[00:48:22] And so real innovation comes down to creating something new. It doesn’t have to be physical. Right. I’m pushing electrons around a computer board, right. So it doesn’t have to be some device or anything like that, but it does have to be something that you own, right. If you have some intellectual property around if you’re going to be a billion-dollar business.
[00:48:42] And so I wish I had known that a little bit earlier.
[00:48:46] Dan: [00:48:46] That was great. That was great. And, you know, we have our journeys and our 10,000 hours. And so. Yeah, we can always look back and see how we could have improved things, but sometimes you have to go through some of that stuff to realize it. So, so that’s great.
[00:48:59] Very [00:49:00] Sage and wise advice. So we’re coming to the end of our time, unfortunately, but before we go, how can the unfound nation audience be helpful to you or, and, or to Courtroom5? Spread
[00:49:14] Sonja Ebron: [00:49:14] the word. That’s our biggest challenge. We’ve got millions of people and frankly, millions of black and Latino people, black and brown people who need what Courtroom5 offers, but we’ll oftentimes hear about us too late.
[00:49:27] And so if you know of someone who needs to know about Courtroom5, give, give them a word about them. Have them come over to Courtroom5. And that’s the number five Courtroom5.com. And get some help. We’ve got very affordable services for anyone there relative to certainly relative to hiring a lawyer or losing your case.
[00:49:45] And so, yeah, help us help us spread the word. And then secondly, just reach out. If there are ways that you’d like to partner, we’re always looking to work with lawyers. We’re always looking to work with clerks of court. If you know someone in the legal aid [00:50:00] organization, we’re looking to partner with all of those to help us help the millions of people
[00:50:04] Dan: [00:50:04] who need us.
[00:50:06] That’s great. And are there any other, uh, handles or, or ways that people can find out more or reach out to you?
[00:50:12] Sonja Ebron: [00:50:12] Absolutely. So you can find me on LinkedIn most easily. Just search on my name. It’s S O N J A last name E B R O N. Find me on LinkedIn and send me a connection. I’d love to reach as many people as we can and just be in touch.
[00:50:28] There we are on Twitter, Facebook, five legal sort of Facebook and Instagram at Courtroom5 medical. So reach out like us, follow us, share all of the great content that we have on, on those platforms and just, um, yeah, the insights with us.
[00:50:44] Dan: [00:50:44] I love it. And I forgot to ask where does Courtroom5? There must be some story behind that
[00:50:49] Sonja Ebron: [00:50:49] Courtroom5.
[00:50:52] So do you ever, and I were needing one day in our office and trying to figure out what we should call this company. [00:51:00] We had begun to sell some of the information that we developed for people and felt like this was actually going to take off and we needed a proper name. And so in the background, we always have some music playing and that particular day we were playing loonies.
[00:51:13] I got five on it. And it, Deborah at one point said, you know, we could call this courtroom anything. And right then the chorus line came on and we both looked at each other and said, let’s just put five on it. So that’s, that’s the origin story of Courtroom5.
[00:51:27] Dan: [00:51:27] I love it. I love it. I was thinking for some reason, like, oh, this is like the place where the courtroom, where people go to represent themselves in some, you know, municipal court building.
[00:51:38] But. Well, this has been, this has been so great. Thank you so much on you for taking the time. We really appreciate it.
[00:51:44] Sonja Ebron: [00:51:44] It’s been an absolute joy, Dan, thank you so much for having me.
[00:51:47] Dan: [00:51:47] I’d like to thank our guest Dr. Sonja Ebron and our sponsor Founders Live.
[00:51:53] This podcast was produced by We Edit Podcasts.
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[00:52:08] I am Dan Kihanya and you’ve been listening to Founders Unfound.