Big Ideas Judge Ryan Shaening Pokrasso: A Commitment to Social Impact and the Law

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Ryan Shaening Pokrasso (JD ’13), a San Francisco Bay Area attorney who specializes in assisting social entrepreneurs, has been a longtime judge and advisor for the Big Ideas student innovation competition.

Ryan entered the legal profession by way of nonprofit policy advocacy. He served as program director for New Energy Economy, a nonprofit organization in New Mexico, prior to attending law school at UC Berkeley School of Law. While with New Energy Economy, Ryan organized to support a cap on carbon emissions in New Mexico and he co-authored, lobbied for, and helped pass the New Mexico Green Jobs Act to provide funding for training programs in sustainable industries for disadvantaged individuals and families. He also led an effort that culminated in the establishment of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce—an influential network of over 1,200 local businesses dedicated to strengthening local economies through sustainable business practices.

While at Boalt Hall, Ryan was a leader of Students for Economic and Environmental Justice and served as a board member for the Ecology Law Quarterly journal. Ryan worked with students, faculty, and legal practitioners to establish a student run Environmental Justice Clinic to provide pro bono legal services to communities disproportionately impacted by carbon intensive industries and to promote community-driven sustainable economic development in the Bay Area and California Central Valley.

Ryan’s diverse legal experience includes serving as: a law fellow for Accountability Counsel, where he supported indigenous communities impacted by large energy projects paid for by international financial institutions; a law clerk for Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, where he supported litigation on environmental issues on behalf of community groups, government agencies, and municipalities; and a law clerkship for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Judiciary Committee office where he provided extensive policy analysis of congressional proposals for the Senator.

Big Ideas sat down with Ryan to learn more about his career trajectory and commitment to supporting early stage social entrepreneurs.

Why did you found SPZ Legal?

My co-founder—Hash Zahed (UC Berkeley JD ’13)—and I had just completed legal fellowships when we decided to start SPZ. We were both in the process of thinking about next steps and “applying for a job” didn’t sound like it was the right fit for us. When we were in law school, we had talked about the possibility of starting some sort of business together, so that was on our radar. When our respective fellowships were ending, I texted Hash and asked him if he wanted to just start our own law firm. He wrote back, “Yes!”

We agreed that starting a firm would give us the opportunity to meet a lot of common goals. Specifically, we could structure our lives in a way that is often lacking from a career practicing law, we could have a great impact through using our legal knowledge and tools to assist social entrepreneurs in building business focused on social change and environmental stewardship, we could create a great place for others to work, and we could do all of this while making a good living for ourselves (which we did not do for the first couple of years!).

In law school, there is a common idea that you can either make a lot of money, work endless hours, and not be focused on having an impact on society, or you can not make money and have a societal impact. We thought this was a false dichotomy, so we started SPZ.

Can you talk about the dynamics between you and your co-founder? How do you complement each other? What advice do you have for students looking for a co-founder?

Hash and I were great friends prior to founding SPZ. You often hear that you should not mix friendship and business. And in working with our clients, we have definitely seen situations where friendships fell apart in the context of business relationships. But the reason that these friendships fall apart is a lack of communication—when friends were hesitant to have “hard conversations” with each other. Oftentimes, friends just assumed that they are on the same page about plans, roles, and responsibilities for the business, when they were not. However, when friends turned business partners are intentional about communication and focus on discussing things as they arise and as they are envisioned, then it can be the best type of business relationship. The reason for this is that friends have each others’ back in a way that business partners may not. When my son was born, Hash took on everything for a long time and never asked for anything in return. A business partner would not have done this. I am happy to say that Hash and I are still friends! And in fact, we recently added another partner to the firm—David De La Flor—who is also a great friend of ours.

So what I recommend to students looking for a co-founder is to focus on communication and personality fit. Skills, competency, and experience are obviously important, but if you do not enjoy working with your co-founder and spending A LOT of time with them, then it is not going to work.

What is it about working with startups that you’ve found most interesting?

Learning about our clients’ amazing work is by far the most interesting aspect of working with startups. We are learning about deep technology and innovative models for impact on a daily basis. It is really inspiring! And it is also so fun to be able to re-experience the excitement that comes with starting a company over and over again, as we work with first-time entrepreneurs.

Do you think more startup founders are trying to embed social impact into their business model from the start these days?  

Absolutely! I don’t have the exact answer for why this is the case, but I feel like my generation and (even more so) the younger generation after me was raised with the idea that community is important and that there is a calling for each of us to be there for our community. And as community becomes more and more of a global concept, I think that the desire for folks to be there for the broader community around the world is increasing.

If you could give one piece of general advice to an early-stage social entrepreneur, what would it be?

Focus on communication—with co-founders, with customers, with vendors, with colleagues, and with anyone else who touches your business. If you have a perfect company and product but you don’t know how to be clear and friendly in communications, opportunities for success will fall by the wayside.

What’s one legal question that is never too early to start thinking about?

I would say that you should be thoughtful about protecting confidential information and IP as early as possible!

This is the first in a series of Q&As with Big Ideas judges and mentors.

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