Alumni Profiles

What I Know Now: Self-Taught Tech Innovator Uses His Superpowers for Social Justice

Mark Hanen

Rutgers alumnus Mark Hansen, cofounder of tech nonprofit Upsolve, channeled his talent at building things to create a tool that helps people file for bankruptcy for free.

By Debbie Meyers

Doing things, making things—those are Mark Hansen’s superpowers. And his philosophy. Learn. Go all out. Even if it’s not in a straight line.

In his academic wanderlust at Rutgers, Hansen SAS’13 studied art, human rights, international relations, anthropology, and lots in between—an enriching college experience but not a marketable persona, so he taught himself programming. At his first full-time job, he encountered contractors who were less than ethical—bullies, he calls them—inspiring him to create an application to keep them accountable to their government clients. His “Hey Mayor!” platform served 300,000 New Jersey residents in four cities by reporting housing discrimination and identifying social safety net programs for unhoused residents.

Despite the app’s success, Hansen had little to show in his bank account, so he took on a freelance project with a duo helping people file for bankruptcy for free. (It costs money to file for bankruptcy, and those who need it struggle to afford it.) They developed Upsolve, which TIME Magazine cited as one of 2020’s best inventions.

Here he describes his winding road to becoming cofounder and chief technology officer at Upsolve.

Education should be Doing

My senior year of high school I took a vocabulary test that had the word robot. I thought, this does not need to be on a quiz for a high school senior. What is the point? Everyone in our class had so much energy and creativity, it was clear we should be out doing things.

High school was me just enjoying making things. I was the kid who wanted to do graffiti instead of schoolwork. I learned the Rubik’s Cube instead of doing my biology work and failed that class. Then I was only in art classes. I would stay after school and run track, then go to stage crew and build sets, then hang around for choir or jazz band. In my spare time, I’d make jewelry out of scrap metal.

There’s no way I could have gotten into Rutgers from high school, and I hadn’t planned to attend college. I wanted to start a socially and politically oriented music label, but I randomly ended up in England for a few months. I met students in a human rights law program who wanted to work in the U.S. representing folks on death row and environmental activists. I clicked with this new energy and decided to go a new path when I got back to the U.S.

A world of learning

Back home, I got into Rutgers as a transfer student. I didn’t really have a game plan and had a ton of anxiety trying to figure things out. I started out in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies, a pathway toward understanding people and human rights. Then American studies. I wanted to take more classes, but I was capped on credits, so I became a BFA (bachelor of fine arts) Mason Gross student so I could take more than 25 credits a semester. The most I did was 32 credits, doing everything from set design to computer science.

After I graduated (with a BA in art from the School of Arts and Sciences), I was interested in international development aid work and technology, how the economy and society change, how we deal with refugees and international crises, but I couldn’t get a job in government or international development. I applied across the country—at cities, states, federal agencies—for years and only once got an interview. I was incredibly frustrated. I decided to learn programming and build government tools outside government and sell to them.

I spent days in call centers and went home at night to program. I maxed out both my credit cards paying rent.

‘My superpower was building’

mark hansen

Upsolve cofounders (from left) Hansen, Rohan Pavuluri and Jonathan Petts.

Then Rohan and Jonathan posted that they needed help. They had been helping people file for bankruptcy in Brooklyn and had been working on a prototype. They tried to build a system for a year; it was something I could knock out in a few hours. After I finished and was in their kitchen, they showed me these mugs some of their grateful clients had sent them. I thought, “I could build the perfect AI/NLP system and never get a coffee mug from someone in local government.” I could see their skill with sales and partnership building, and I could solo design and program pretty much anything. I recognized my superpower was building.

Five years later, we’ve helped thousands of people file bankruptcy. It has surprised the legal world and cleared $500 million in debt for families across the country.

If others can’t see your greatness, don’t wait

Early in my career, I hit barriers with managers when I would go above and beyond. They’d take credit for my work or push me out of a job. My unconventional path has been a blessing but it has presented challenges and self-doubt. I’ve made it work, but I waited too long for affirmation or confirmation from those I looked up to, for a green light.

Now that we’ve built some great products, I’m looking to the future without that self-doubt. I’ve started teaching myself biology, chemistry, and reading papers on the recent breakthroughs with AI. If we’re going to avoid climate catastrophe and bring about a more just world, it’s time for me to aim bigger.


What I Know Now features prominent alumni reflecting on their careers and their time at Rutgers while offering their insights and advice to current students and recent grads. They focus on life lessons—identifying what’s important and maintaining a healthy balance. And of course, finding personal success.