Legal Justice for All with Amélie-Sophie Vavrovsky
An Interview with the CEO & Founder of Formally
By: Sophia Posada-Parker, BBGV Platform & Operations MBA Intern
Each Fourth of July, Americans gather, celebrate, honor, and pay their respects to this country. This July Fourth, however — after the reversal of Roe v. Wade diminished rights and yet another shooting killed 7 people in Chicago during a July 4 parade — we started thinking… What does it mean to be American today?
We reached out to Amélie-Sophie Vavrovsky, Founder & CEO of BBGV portfolio company Formally, to discuss how we can learn from the immigrant experience of American identity.
— Learn more about how Formally is bringing legal justice to all.
You are an Austrian immigrant who has lived in the United States for high school, college, and now law school. What does ‘home’ mean for you in a country that is technically foreign?
Amélie-Sophie Vavrovsky: I grew up with a really international background and first left Austria when I was just 15. I’m not sure you really fully belong when you call so many places home, which is something I think a lot of immigrants experience. It sounds cheesy, but home is really about where you have people that mean something to you. Austrian culture has shaped me and is important to me, but I’ve learned I can really create community anywhere.
How did your experience as an international student and public policy professional in the U.S. influence your decision to found Formally? How has it influenced the way you interact with venture capital, startups, and the tech industry overall?
ASV: Founding Formally was very much a response to policy challenges I saw within the U.S. in a social and legal context, and my policy background gave me a unique insight into this. I was really looking to see where I could provide the most impact. Originally I was interested in international institutions, but I found that the meaningful policy change I was looking to make, in asylum for example, was too urgent for the slow and codified processes within these sorts of institutions. There are some shifts in the system that simply cannot wait.
And did that influence your decision to found Formally as a startup, rather than a non-profit?
ASV: In the U.S. I think the private sector provides the best chance at making a solution fine tuned to the problem its clients are facing. Creating a technical product that works for individuals, which is really what Formally is trying to do with legal access, is most effective when companies are held accountable to customers. The U.S. has a really strong understanding of customer rights, and so companies here have to fine tune their products to best serve their customers. I had a theory that if legal justice were set up in that structure, it would result in the most specific, successful outcomes for those seeking immigration and legal justice solutions in the United States. And I think I was right.
I also think that non profit organizations in America rely on funding that tends to be politicized and has a short attention span. I didn’t want to risk being so tied to the political whims of donors, rather than being tied to the demands of my customers. This setup has been really successful so far.
Formally is a legal tech startup on a mission to increase access to justice through intelligent technology and accessible design. Can you elaborate on what “access to justice” means to you?
ASV: Access to justice means that people who are facing legal issues understand their options and get timely and affordable access to the legal help they need. In order for this to be true, these people need to understand and own their legal processes.
Why is it important for Formally to exist in America specifically?
ASV: I’ll give you two specific examples, and the first starts with a point of data: The World Justice Project’s 2021 Rule of Law Index ranks the U.S. 126th out of 139 countries on “accessibility and affordability of civil justice.” In 2020 it was at 108, so it dropped substantially. What’s more, from 2015 to 2021, the U.S. ranking dropped over 40 spots. In a country that has the highest density of lawyers in the world, but ranks so low on accessibility and affordability of civil justice, there just has to be a way to fix this.
Another example of the need in the U.S. is an exercise I asked Stanford Law Students to conduct with me. I asked them to find the laws to respond to an eviction notice in California, within 15 minutes. Eviction laws differ not just between states, but also between counties. They are just one example of how specific and difficult to navigate the justice system can be. None of the Law Students sampled could do it. This really underlines the problem we are facing here. It should not be this hard to know your rights.
What sector of the immigration system do you think requires the most focus for America to be a more just place? How is Formally working to address that?
ASV: If we create sound immigration policies and processes for entrepreneurs, the US can benefit from a tremendous influx of talent and ideas. I am proud that Formally is part of creating a better immigration system to help support entrepreneurial talent.
You’ve focused on learning languages throughout your life. What does linguistic identity have to do with cultural or national identity? How have your language skills impacted your work at Formally?
ASV: Languages are an amazing way to create community and build empathetic relationships with others. Being a polyglot, I’ve always connected with people who are different from me, and learned about different ways of thinking. When learning new languages, I experienced myself not understanding concepts, even if I understood the words being said. When I started thinking about access to justice, language access felt like a really important part of this. If people can properly understand and express themselves, it creates a much more empowered process and we’ve found that to be particularly effective at Formally. This is especially true for humanitarian work.
What do you wish Americans who are born here and don’t have to go through the immigration process knew about the immigration system?
ASV: So much. The way the current immigration system works really does hinder innovation. There is so much data on this, but I wish people did proper research to understand that providing people with legal pathways to come here really does benefit this country from both a pure financial tax perspective and also a humanitarian perspective. I wish people knew that the vast majority of people come here because they want to contribute. That many people are making a choiceless choice, fleeing from some form of violence to come here, and those people almost always want to go home at some point. I wish people understood the emotional stress of being an immigrant in any situation.
What advice would you give to those who see injustice in the United States?
ASV: If you are a U.S. citizen and you can vote, please call your representatives and vote! And above all, do something about it. Don’t be afraid you can’t make a difference. People get discouraged because the problems seem too big, but you’d be surprised by the differences you can make.
Also, be deeply engaged with the community you’re looking to help. Make sure you’re really in touch and do your research and understand the problem from multiple perspectives. Don’t get attached to your solution too quickly. Get deeply attached to understanding your problem.
What advice would you give to start-up founders who are tackling public policy and governmental issues?
ASV: First of all, we need more of these founders! It’s a space that is so interesting, with so much opportunity! So please, innovate! And that it’s okay if it feels really hard. There is a reason these issues are so hard. People say you can’t change entrenched systems, but that’s only true until someone changes them. And that person really could be you.
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