An Exclusive Interview with Christopher Gray: Founder of Scholly
1. Chris, can you tell us about your childhood background? Also, how have social good projects played a role in your early life? Who have you teamed up with at this point?
I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama to a single mom and two younger siblings. Although I came from a low-income background, I was able to attend a magnet high school and be in a decent environment academically despite the failing school system. In terms of social good, I started my own organization in high school called Genesis, an organization geared toward helping students get volunteer opportunities. So Scholly wasn’t my first swing at a social enterprise and trying to add value to those I thought needed help.
2. Have you seen Angela Duckworth’s TED talk about grit? Do you feel that grit and resilience are traits you have that have brought you great success?
No, I haven’t seen the TED talk, but I do believe that resilience and grit played a huge role in my success. To come from a low-income background, to build a great company and even end up on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list is a testament to that.
3. As you started researching colleges, did anyone talk to you about potential scholarships-such as a mentor or guidance counselor?
Yes, I had several mentors who helped me through the process. I would have been lost without them.
4. What was college scholarship research like for you at the beginning and how did you get the idea to turn your personal journey into a business?
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; these reasons 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 things out there at the time. It would take about 20 minutes to put in all of my personal information and then the sites would bring up hundreds of “matches” that I 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; and that forced me to have to apply for some scholarships via my cell phone 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 require; 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; and 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.
5. As a teacher and higher education professional, I will never forget the night I saw you on Shark Tank. Your passion moved all of us in our home. Please tell me about your experience on Shark Tank. What is it like working with Daymond and Lori today? How are they helping you scale Scholly?
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 partners 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 the #1 app in iPhone and Android store for three weeks.
6. How many students have used Scholly, and how much money has been awarded?
Right now over 600,000 users use Scholly and over $20 million has been raised.
7. As you are aware, student loan debt affects our nation socially and economically. In 2015, we can see the numbers are staggering: In the U.S., we have more than $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, over 40 million borrowers, with an average balance of $29,000. Do you have any future plans on educating youth about financial responsibility (such as conferences, webinars, etc.)? Possibly through new partnerships?
Yes, educating todays’ students about financial responsibility is extremely important to me. Whenever I speak at events, on TV and elsewhere I often address this issue. I think that trying to get scholarships to attend college, rather than take out student loans is a key part of helping millennial and current students avoid the crushing student debt that is so prevalent today. With our Give: Scholly initiative, we try to partner with different states, organizations and companies to provide Scholly to large populations of students. Give: Scholly is a co-branded sponsorship program that allows organizations and companies to purchase their own branded access code to Scholly, which they can then distribute to as many selected constituents as they wish.
Some companies distribute Scholly access codes as an employee benefit through their human resources departments, while others use the program as marketing outreach to key audiences. Non-profits can also provide Scholly to the students they serve. In arming them with Scholly, we hope that they will take the next step to search for scholarships instead of loans.
8. In the future, do you see mentors assisting youth with your application? For example, providing support for essays, reviewing applications, increasing mentor encouragement and guidance?
Yes, a lot of teachers, counselors, and mentors are already using Scholly. There are workshops they have around Scholly, presentations, and even some small groups who purchase Scholly for their students to supplement their programs.
Thank you Chris and congratulations on your platform and great achievement; you are an inspiration to the world.