Take a look at the landscape. There is always a backdoor or alternative path. If you find the path less taken, then it’s easier to stand out and carve out your route to success. For example, at Upswing, we were one of many startups competing for funding in Durham. Rather than stay in this crowded landscape, we took a funding opportunity that brought us to Austin. Taking this unexpected path changed the trajectory of our business for the better.
As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melvin Hines, CEO and Co-founder of Upswing.
Melvin is the co-founder and CEO of Upswing, an organization that uses engagement software to help keep online students and adult learners on the path towards graduation. After graduating from the University of Georgia, Melvin received a JD/MBA from Duke University where he started a law forum for social and educational equality. Afterward, he worked as a professor at North Carolina Central University, where he helped in first-year student success.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
My backstory starts in south Georgia where I grew up. In my high school class of 250 students, I was one of only 68 who graduated. An awareness that something was inherently broken ignited my passion for finding a way to empower students to take their futures into their own hands through higher education. I went on to complete my undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia and received a JD/MBA from Duke University.
Even as I completed my graduate studies and worked as a consultant, the attrition problems that I encountered in high school remained my north star. After volunteering for community mentorship programs and becoming a law professor at North Carolina Central University, I founded Upswing to help solve the problem of attrition and keep online students and adult learners on a path towards graduation.
Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
When I was a first-year law student at Duke, I felt like a fish out of water in a profound way. I had experienced some culture shock as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, but it was nothing compared to how I felt at Duke. Many of my classmates were second- or third-generation lawyers, and they knew how to play the game — including the words they used and the extracurriculars they pursued — that I didn’t even know existed. To make things even more challenging, our final exams, which were graded on a moving curve, compared me to these peers who had all of the advantages. At the end of my first semester, I performed poorly on my finals, and I thought to myself “I do not belong here.” I questioned the future that my family and I had envisioned for me.
What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
To continue with law school, I had to recognize three key things. First, I wasn’t seeing people around me fail out of law school. I figured that if I kept trying, kept moving forward, and demonstrated that I didn’t want to give up, there were likely some safeguards and support systems that would help me stay as long as I put in the effort.
Second, I had to acknowledge that I was fighting with one hand tied behind my back. I was trying to keep up with my peers on their turf and, without the same cultural capital and background, it would be much harder to succeed. Instead, I worked to identify my own strengths that would help me stand on my own ground. For example, I knew I was a good writer. Rather than taking classes with final exams, I selected courses where you had to write 30-page research papers because I knew I could do that really well.
Finally, I embraced my interests and found ways to make them a part of my law school experience. I knew that I was passionate about education, so I decided to petition the school to create my own law review, the Duke Forum for Law & Social Change, which still exists today. Starting a new law review was a bit radical but I knew that to be successful I had to find ways to stand out, not fit in.
Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
My peers definitely thought my approach to success was crazy; I was writing five 30-page papers per semester, but I was also one of the top students in those classes. By choosing to chart my own course and take an unconventional approach, I learned how to manage my time and gained valuable research experience that would ultimately help me run the law review.
My success in my classes helped me gain the confidence to realize that I did belong at law school, even if my experience looked different than my peers. Getting the law review approved was also a confidence booster. All of a sudden, my classmates came out of the woodwork and said that they shared my passions for social change but didn’t know where to channel those interests. It was satisfying to see people benefit from what I created and it validated my choice to forge my own path for success.
The lessons I learned in law school about identifying my path forward based on my own strengths and interests led me to start Upswing many years later.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
My first piece of advice is: if you are a new person in a new environment, it’s okay to feel dumb and out of place. In fact, assume that you will feel that way. You aren’t expected to know about a situation you have never been in before. Know that you are definitely not the only person who feels that way.
Second, take a look at the landscape. There is always a backdoor or alternative path. If you find the path less taken, then it’s easier to stand out and carve out your route to success. For example, at Upswing, we were one of many startups competing for funding in Durham. Rather than stay in this crowded landscape, we took a funding opportunity that brought us to Austin. Taking this unexpected path changed the trajectory of our business for the better.
Third, when you choose to take an unconventional path, it’s important to stay the course even if it feels lonely, or awkward, or strange. If you believe in where you are going, you will see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I was starting the Duke Forum for Law & Social Change, starting a new law review felt like an insurmountable and outlandish task at many times, but I believed in the value of the work we were doing, and we ultimately persevered.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The two people who have really helped me get where I am are my parents. They have both felt like fish out of water at points in their lives and helped me navigate those feelings throughout my education and career. They have always found ways to support me, even if that meant just offering practical advice. For instance, when I was putting on a conference for the law review, my dad helped me find ways to stretch the meager budget by calling hotels to secure bundle discounts. It seems like a small thing but those little shows of support always made me feel like I could keep going.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Upswing raised our series A funding round in March, and we have used that funding to create even more support resources for non-traditional students. One project in particular that I am excited about is on-demand, live teletherapy for students. We have been working some time on getting the right price point to ensure that our institutional customers can offer this service for free for students.
Upswing has always partnered with universities to improve the success and graduation rates of nontraditional students. For this group of students, one of the biggest challenges they face is that life gets in the way. COVID exacerbated this problem, particularly from a mental health perspective. We found that services addressing depression, anxiety, and isolationism were gaps on the platform. We offered self-paced tools to help identify these factors but we didn’t have a “now what” offering to address these challenges. We knew that being able to deliver teletherapy was a needed step to help our customers address widespread mental health concerns.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
One of the great tragedies of the American ecosystem is the racial disparities in three key categories: educational attainment, wealth generation, and healthcare. If I could inspire a movement that brings the most amount of good to the most amount of people, it would be to figure out solutions to close the gaps in those categories in a sustainable way. I would find a way to invest in startups that are tackling one or more of those issues. I believe that the ideas are there but, for some reason, they’re not being funded. I would like to change that.
Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
I mentioned this earlier in the interview, but I think it’s worth saying again: when you find yourself in an unfamiliar environment, figure out what makes you stand out and use your differences to your advantage. Also, the unconventional path may be challenging, but it will also probably be more fun!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.