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Social Impact Tech: Matthew Hellrung of Meltzer Hellrung On How Their Technology Will Make An Important Positive Impact

Our dream would be to use Voyager to add processing capacity through efficiency and automation to scale pro bono immigration and other legal services, making pro bono legal services more accessible, efficient, and cost effective.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing industry leaders who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Hellrung.

Matthew Hellrung is partner and co-founder of Meltzer Hellrung, a business immigration software and services law firm based in Chicago. Matthew’s practice focuses on non-immigrant and immigrant employment-based visa issues, as well as advising investors and large multinational corporations from a variety of industries — including information technology, engineering, education, manufacturing and entertainment industries — on immigration practice and policy concerns. He recently spearheaded the development and launch of Voyager, Meltzer Hellrung’s technology-driven immigration workflow management system designed to track all employment immigration documents and activities to better serve the firm’s roster of clients and global businesses.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I was born in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to my mom, Ann Hellrung, a pharmaceutical sales rep, and my dad, Jim Hellrung, an industrial engineer in the semiconductor industry. Pretty standard middle-class life. Wasn’t a great student or athlete, but I managed to play varsity tennis and get into college at the University of Pittsburgh.

I was fortunate to work in restaurants since the age of 14, from busser to dishwasher to prep cook to line cook, I worked my way up the back-of-house hierarchy, collaborating with teammates from all types of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. The experience gave me an appreciation for hard work, collaboration, and the value of working with a diverse group of people.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I think the most interesting story I have about my career is how it began. Coming out of law school in The Great Recession, jobs for attorneys were scarce. To have a better opportunity and employment, I moved to Chicago, a larger legal market with more jobs compared to Pittsburgh, with 6 months of living expenses and no job prospects.

I applied at dozens of firms, working any connection I had, to get an interview. After about two months of applying, I finally got a few interviews and landed two job offers: 1) a position as a Law Clerk working for the City of Chicago’s litigation department; and 2) an offer to join a start-up-like tech and legal services firm that specialized in corporate or employment-based immigration services — essentially, obtaining work visas and green cards for tech employees of U.S. companies.

I decided to take the tech-legal service firm’s offer because it gave me the opportunity to help people directly, which was always a goal of mine coming out of law school, and it involved learning employment immigration, employment law, some tax, and corporate transactions/M&A. It was my early experience seeing how technology could be used to improve the delivery of legal services at my first job that has inspired the rest of my career, and the founding of Meltzer Hellrung.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Cliché, but my mom. After my parents divorced when I was 11, my mom had to take a new job to earn more money to keep us in our house, going to the same school. Watching her rise early and work late to master a new area of pharmaceuticals, knowing that my sister and I were depending on her to be successful, taught me everything I know about work ethic, business norms, sales, networking, and putting in the time to be prepared for my opportunity to succeed.

Watching her struggle, but ultimately succeed, was the best model of hard work equals success that a kid can have. And her attitude toward learning new skills — I’ll teach you once and then it’s your turn — taught me to feel more comfortable trying new things and, most of the time, being terrible at it, at first.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Instead of asking, “What do I want from life?”, a more powerful question is, “What does life want from me?” — Eckart Tolle

This has been a recent favorite of mine to repeat when I’m having a rough day. My therapist mentioned it to me when I was going through a particularly hard professional and personal period 8–9 months ago. I had never heard of Eckart Tolle before that moment, but that quote changed my perspective a bit.

To me, it means “What is life asking of me today?” What skill or virtue can I wield to solve the problems life has given me this day, week, or month. Inherently, in my mind, being asked to do something is like a challenge. How can I overcome the challenge life is giving me at this moment or on this day, using the skills or knowledge I have at my disposal? In short, for me, it moves my mindset from a passive “life is happening to me” to an active “life is challenging me to grow, to be more compassionate, more resilient, more patient.”

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Authenticity — Whether it’s hiring a new team member or pitching a new client, most people can smell BS. You have to walk your talk and, at the same time, make sure you’re 100% in personally and professionally before you begin speaking. If you’re not, people will know and you’ll lose credibility and respect among your team, your clients, and your peers.
  2. Compassion — I’m an immigration lawyer trying to improve the experience folks have with the U.S. immigration system. Compassion for the struggle that folks go through to build a life in the U.S. is at the heart of what we do as a company. And, compassion for team members, colleagues, and clients. Immigration is a stressful practice area. Expectations, emotions, and concerns for the well-being of loved ones is intricately woven into practicing immigration law. Everyone’s allowed to make a mistake or have a bad day. To me, compassion is understanding that everyone is just as human and flawed as I am. Be kind.
  3. Patience — To me, being patient means setting realistic expectations and goals for myself, my team, and our business. There’s so many opportunities and challenges that invade my life every day, focusing on our goal of improving the immigration experience and understanding that we’ll achieve our goal in time with patience and persistence is what helps me sleep at night.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?

The immigration process in the U.S. and many other countries is opaque, inefficient, riddled with misinformation, and run by traditional law firms that focus on practicing law instead of serving clients.

How do you think your technology can address this?

With our recent release of Voyager, we’re marrying the transparency, efficiency, and presentation of data offered by software with the high-touch, people-focused immigration services model we’ve been known for since our inception.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Improving and expanding the delivery of legal services to clients is something I’ve been passionate about since I first became an attorney. We have a consolidated software-based dashboard providing efficiency and transparency into our health, mortgage application, credit card statement, bank account, etc. Why can’t we bring the same level of agency and autonomy to clients buying legal services?

Immigration is complicated and stressful. Any tool that can provide our clients with a more transparent and compassionate experience is something we’ll always look to incorporate into Voyager and our immigration practice.

How do you think this might change the world?

Multiplying a person or firm’s capacity to handle casework through the efficiency of software and, at the same time, improving each client’s legal services experience opens so many possibilities in the future. For example, Voyager could help nonprofits providing immigration services to take on more cases by automating mundane information collection, document collection, and administrative tasks.

Ideally, we would also use Voyager to automate immigration benefits that are often done on a pro bono basis, like scaling up a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Humanitarian Parole (HP) process that allows individuals seeking refuge or refugee status in the United States. These people could self-prepare and submit TPS or HP applications from an app on their cell phone. Meltzer Hellrung has offered 25 free TPS and HP pro bono applications to Ukrainian, Sudanese, and Cameroon nationals. To my knowledge, the firm is currently processing several TPS/HP applications for individuals from these countries and we’re actively seeking additional pro bono applicants.

Our dream would be to use Voyager to add processing capacity through efficiency and automation to scale pro bono immigration and other legal services, making pro bono legal services more accessible, efficient, and cost effective.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

The one that comes to mind immediately is privacy. Immigration is filled with sensitive information such as birthdates, birthplaces, national ID numbers, etc. We’ve gone to great levels to make sure Voyager is a secure immigration management platform with proper overview and security protocols in place.

I think anyone developing tech that will house people’s personal information needs to take a fiduciary stance in protecting their clients’ sensitive data.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

  1. If you’re not a software expert, which I’m not, find someone who is and shares your vision of how you want to use the technology you create together. If you share the same vision, how you get there is just details.
  2. Listen to the folks you’re trying to help. Don’t guess what a user wants. Ask the user and build around their preferences.
  3. Fully understand the complexity and breadth of the problem you’re trying to solve and, at the same time, never think “you know it all.” You don’t. You never will. You’re human.
  4. Not everything can be solved by software. People are a significant part of every real-world problem you’re trying to solve and, therefore, people need to play a significant role in providing your software-enabled solution.
  5. Whatever type of software you’re building, big or small, plan to go 20% over budget and timeline. It’s the nature of the beast.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

If you don’t try, who else will? As humans, we inspire each other to achieve greatness. It’s an amazing strength we have as a species, but it takes someone brave enough to stand up and try first.

I became a lawyer because I was inspired by my college political science teacher saying “If you don’t stand up and speak for yourself, someone else will speak for you.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Oh geez. Haha. If you asked me this question 5 years ago, I’d have probably said “Elon Musk.” But today, Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia.

Their products are amazing. Yvon, by all accounts, embodies the concept of servant leadership, and the company’s commitment to their employees and the environment, which has been a core value from Patagonia’s inception, shines through in everything they do. They put people and the planet before profits, in my opinion.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me and Meltzer Hellrung on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We publish thought leadership pieces advocating for process and regulatory immigration reform weekly, aiming to educate our clients and the public on all things immigration.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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