From start(up) to finish: Improving lives through technology

With their app Bolster, Eric Bai ’15.5 and Michelle Petersen ’18 are creating a better bridge between social workers and their clients.

When they first met, Eric Bai ’15.5 and Michelle Petersen ’18 seemed an unlikely pair to embark on an entrepreneurial venture together. Bai was a junior studying computer science and pre-med while Peterson was a first-year student studying public policy and public health. Neither had a business background, let alone a desire to enter the tech startup scene. But they did share a vision: to help improve their community, create impact at scale, and generate change in broken and bureaucratic systems.

A startup based on empathy


When it comes to entrepreneurship, Eric Bai ’15.5 and Michelle Petersen ’18 are the poster children for growing a business at Brown.

“Poster” children for entrepreneurship

In the summer of 2013 Bai was in Nairobi, Kenya, interning with Frontline SMS—a business using a text messaging application to reach places with unreliable internet or minimal access to electricity.

“I was exposed to a real-world application of computer science, specifically how you can apply the skills that you learn in the classroom to change the way that people work or live in their day-to-day lives,” he says.

Bai returned to campus and began looking for other students interested in technology and social work. He made some posters and hung them up around campus. They piqued the interest of Petersen, who already had some volunteer experience in social work under her belt. She applied online and, after a few conversations, the two joined forces.

Working with communities throughout Rhode Island, they soon tapped into an unmet need that cut across the state—the ability for social workers and non-profit employees to quickly and efficiently communicate with their clients. Next step: build a product to solve this problem.

Over the next few years Bai and Petersen created Bolster (formerly TextUp), an application that allows social work agencies and nonprofits to build strong client relationships by enabling consistent communication and reliable follow-up.

“ A lot of our work is having conversations with social workers about their day-to-day stressors and workshopping potential software solutions with them. It aligns with our social mission, but it's also just smart business practice. ”

Michelle Petersen ’18

How does Bolster work?

With the Bolster app, a social worker can create a unique user identifier (a phone number) and login from any device. All client records and communication are encrypted to ensure the security of sensitive client information. Through the platform, the social worker can easily streamline and track communication by texting or calling clients, uploading documents to a central location, and adding client notes.

For both Bai and Petersen, having a sense of community engagement and encouraging feedback from their end users have been at the core of their process.

"Social workers know what they need better than anyone else does,” says Petersen. “They're the ones grappling with these problems every day. Instead of guessing what they need, we just ask them. A lot of our work is having conversations with social workers about their day-to-day stressors and workshopping potential software solutions with them. It aligns with our social mission, but it's also just smart business practice.”

According to Megan Smith ’10, a local social worker and one of their early adopters, “Eric and Michelle have been so open about the process. They critically consider my feedback and find ways to incorporate it, iterate, and ask follow-up questions in a way that is really, from my perspective, focused on how this tool can best be used to support existing work.”

Making full use of everything Brown has to offer

Bai and Petersen utilized all the programs and support that Brown’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship has to offer. In 2016, they participated in the summer program Breakthrough Lab (B-Lab). In 2018 Peterson went on to win third place at the Brown Venture Prize pitch competition, as well as become the first-ever Brown Venture Founder.

The Open Curriculum also played an important role in Bolster’s success.

“Engaging with programs at the Nelson Center, leveraging the Open Curriculum to do independent studies on Bolster, and taking classes related to entrepreneurship was really how I learned the business basics. I was able to start putting legs on something that I cared a lot about,” Peterson explained.

For Executive Director of the Nelson Center Danny Warshay ’87, the story of Bolster and its founders is emblematic of entrepreneurship at Brown: “Michelle and Eric epitomize the type of students that the Nelson Center aims to support: students that embrace the Open Curriculum and engage thoughtfully with the center’s resources and programs, in order to make the most of their time here at Brown and build a venture with impact.”

(Published May 2019)

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