Christopher Gray is the founder and CEO of Scholly, a web and mobile app that helps students find scholarships for college. Gray was still a college student himself when he created Scholly to help others pursuing a route that was all too familiar to him.
Gray grew up in an inner city school system and a low-income household headed by a single mother of three. Despite that, he was determined to go to college, and spent long and laborious hours searching and applying for scholarships on the only devices available to him, his mobile phone and public computers. Ultimately, his hard work paid off and he won more than $1.3 million dollars in scholarships to fund the education he so desperately sought.
While an undergraduate at Drexel University, Gray decided to help future students avoid the painstaking application process he had endured and decided to streamline the process by developing Scholly. Scholly has an adaptive matching engine that performs with laser-like focus, delivering smarter, targeted lists of scholarships and saving applicants valuable searching time. In less than two years, the app has helped students win over $20 million in scholarship funds.
While at Drexel, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Entrepreneurship, Gray was also a co-op intern at Fannie Mae and a founding partner of First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund, a student-run investment fund that invests in student-run start-ups.
Gray and Scholly were recently featured on “Shark Tank,” where he landed a deal with Daymond John and Lori Grenier, while also sparking the biggest fight in the show’s history. He continues to work closely with both John and Grenier today as Scholly evolves and grows.
In early 2016, Gray was named one of Forbes’ “30 under 30” social influencers who are helping make the world a better place. In 2015, he was also awarded the Ernest & Young Entrepreneur of 2015 for Philadelphia, where he currently resides, and also won Steve Case’s “Rise of the Rest” competition. In addition, he is a Coca Cola Scholar, a Bill Gates Scholar, a Horatio Alger Scholar, a Founder Society member, a Kairos Society Fellow, an Under Armour Cupid’s Cup winner, and the winner of Drexel’s Incubator competition.. Gray’s name also appears on the BET “30 Under 30” list
Scholly has partnered with the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative to provide the app to 275,000 students across America each year at no charge. The app has also been endorsed by the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and the Gates Millennium Scholars Foundation.
1) How did you come up with the idea for Scholly?
The idea was born out of my own frustrations as a high school student growing up in an underserved Alabama community. There was violence, gangs, and a culture filled with anti intellectualism. Students who were bright and motivated were often over shadowed and smothered. That coupled with a lack of economic opportunity made it even harder to succeed no matter how hard I worked.
Despite that, I was determined to go to college and began to seek out scholarships. I spent long and laborious hours searching and applying for scholarships on sites like Fast Web and Scholarships.com. They were really the only thing out there at the time. It would take you about 20 minutes to put in all of your personal information and then the sites would bring up hundreds of “matches” that you had to sort through in order to see if you qualified for them. The process took me months.
To add to the frustration, I was only able to use computers at local libraries and at school for very short periods of time. That forced me to have to apply for some scholarships via my cell phone and in these cases, I would literally have to write my essays down and then type them into fields on my small phone screen. The process was agonizing and tedious, but I knew I had to do it. Ultimately, my hard work paid off and I won more than 1.3 million dollars in scholarships to funds.
The search process took me months and there was an ungodly amount of grit and persistence required. It can take some students even longer and most just give up altogether. I knew there had to be an easier way to match students with scholarships they qualify for.
While an undergraduate at Drexel, I wanted to help future students avoid the painstaking application process I had endured and decided to streamline the process for others by developing Scholly. I came up with our “eight parameter system” for Scholly. I looked through a lot of scholarships to find out what criteria made a student eligible for a scholarship. That’s the core of the Scholly search. The goal of Scholly is to streamline the search process and to give students access to funds to pay for college. In less than two years, the app has helped students win over $20 million in scholarship funds.
2) Where do you see the business going?
Scholly’s mission is to provide access to opportunity. While we are starting with scholarships, we plan to begin to match students with and promote other educational opportunities as well. Our slogan is, “opportunity for all” and we plan to provide that access through our platform.
3) How did your experience on Shark Tank and the investment from Lori Greiner and Daymond John help your business?
The experience on Shark Tank was fantastic. It was really exciting pitching Scholly to the sharks and humbling that so many of them believed in and were interested in supporting my business. Having Lori and Daymond as partner in Scholly has been an extremely rewarding experience. They have provided me with valuable advice and guidance as I work to grow the business. In addition, the publicity and recognition Scholly garnered as a result of Shark Tank had a huge impact on the business. Post “Shark Tank”, Scholly was ranked #1 app in iPhone and Android store for three weeks.
4) What inspired you to go into business?
As I mentioned, the idea was born out of my own frustrating experience applying to college (see above). I knew there had to be a better way to go about it and I wanted to help students avoid the long and tedious process I had endured which would hinder many people from pursuing scholarships and being able to attend college.
5) How important is it to go college?
I think going to college is extremely important. Not only because of the classes and information you learn, but also because of the people and connections you make while there as well as the resources colleges provide. For example, there is an upside to starting a company while in college, you have access to mentors and a lot of free capital through competitions. Between Drexel and other competitions, I won around $130,000 dollars for Scholly while in school. Similar to scholarships, I became pretty good at raising “free money” for Scholly. Also, as a student you have access to a variety of mentors and programs that can assist you in starting and growing your company.
6) What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Starting a company in college has both its advantages and disadvantages. The upside is that you are in college and with entrepreneurship at the top of everyone’s minds, you have access to mentors and a lot of free capital through competitions. Between Drexel and other competitions, I won around $130,000 dollars for Scholly. Similar to scholarships, I became pretty good at raising “free money” for Scholly. Also, as a student you have access to a variety of mentors and programs that can assist you in starting and growing your company.
We would like to thank Christopher for speaking with us.