Christopher Gray is on a personal crusade to help low-income students find the scholarship money they need to make their college dreams come true. Raised by a single mother in Birmingham, Alabama, the young entrepreneur grew up in poverty during the height of the Great Recession. He desperately wanted to go to college, but he couldn’t afford to, not without financial aid.
With little other choice, he set out to secure as many scholarships as possible. He struggled for seven months to find and apply for enough scholarships to fund four years of college, not to mention living expenses, all while attending high school. He also juggled working at a clothing store to help pay his family’s bills at the time.
Gray’s hard work more than paid off. He garnered a remarkable $1.3 million in scholarships in total, including a full-ride scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. His impressive haul earned him a catchy nickname that stuck – “the Million Dollar Scholar.” More importantly, it enabled him to study finance and entrepreneurship at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
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Unable to afford a computer at home, Gray scoured the Internet for scholarship opportunities at the neighborhood public library. There, he was forced to rush through his searches due to strict shared computer-use time limits. Determined to succeed despite the many obstacles in his way, he even wrote lengthy scholarship application essays on his cell phone, diligently tapping out each word with his thumbs.
“There was information online, but it was scattered all over, and often outdated,” Gray recalled on his blog. “I did a lot of Googling. I thought there had to be a better way.”
So he created a better way and called it Scholly. Launched in 2013 through Drexel’s Close School of Entrepreneurship Co-Op incubator program, the innovative college scholarship search app helps students of all walks of life quickly and easily find verified scholarship opportunities. Gray later pitched Scholly on ABC’s Shark Tank. After the hit show’s celebrity investors finished feuding over who had dibs on investing in his app, Lori Greiner and Daymond John jointly invested $40,000 in the budding venture.
How it Works
To streamline the tedious and time-consuming process of sourcing applicable scholarships, Scholly prompts parent and student users to fill out a few basic parameters. Among them are: gender, race, grade point average, location, desired colleges, desired degree, and other unique attributes. Based on what’s entered, the app’s curated scholarship database then delivers a comprehensive list of personalized scholarship matches. From there, users can take steps (on their own, outside of the app) to apply for individual scholarships.
Advice from scholarship recipients, application deadline tracking tools, and sample application essays are also available through the app, which is free on a limited basis. It’s important to note, however, that Scholly users must pay a small fee to unlock scholarship matches.
Gray — no doubt a hero to the many low-income students he’s helped gain access to higher education — draws his entrepreneurial inspiration from a legendary superhero: Batman, or, rather, the man behind the mask.
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“Bruce Wayne was suave. He was a businessman. Intelligent. Serious. Intense. Focused. I was drawn to that character,” Gray told his alma mater, in the university’s online publication. “The entire concept was that you can rise from the ashes and be something great, and still be a normal human being, and use your intelligence and willpower and resources to make things happen.”