Scholar in Orbit, Out of Centerpoint
Christopher Gray drew on his Birmingham roots in developing a scholarship app, Scholly, that has slingshot him into a prospering new enterprise.
Entrepreneur Christopher Gray has a message.
“You can be successful at a very young age, and it doesn’t matter where you come from,” the Alabama-born Gray says. “What is interesting to me about my story is that there is such a wide range of people who come to me who have the same background as me.”
Two years ago, Gray teamed with fellow Drexel University student Nick Pirollo and fellow Coca-Cola Scholar Bryson Alef to found Scholly, an app that gives high school, college and graduate students a better way to learn about scholarship opportunities. The free app offers tips and advice for applying for scholarships and is available through the iPhone and Android app stores. The full version, with access to the scholarship-matching platform, is $2.99 and includes a web version. To date, the platform has accurately matched students with more than $50 million in scholarship funds and along the way has gained a large amount of national attention.
“As an entrepreneur, you are solving a problem that you have,” Gray says. The problem Gray had was finding a way to pay for a college degree. Gray, his two brothers and sister were raised by a single mother in Centerpoint, a Birmingham suburb. And money was scarce.
“Growing up and right out of high school, $2 or $10 meant the world to me, right?” he says. “I used to save up $1 bills to buy a $20 video game at Wal-Mart. Now, that’s like my coffee money at Starbucks. The reason I say that sort of stuff is that I am not too far removed from it.”
Nonetheless, Gray’s intelligence and achievement allowed him to attend Birmingham’s prestigious Ramsay High School, where the advanced placement rate is 100 percent, and the total minority enrollment is 99 percent.
While in high school, he began the process of searching the internet and filling out applications, working long hours on free library computers and his phone, eventually landing more than $1.3 million in scholarships.
He chose Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he graduated last spring.
“Drexel did a lot of recruiting,” Grays says. “I met a representative from Drexel, and they had a co-op system, and I wanted to go to the East Coast and wanted to be in an environment where I could start a tech company, and, so, here I am,” he says.
Now the Philadelphia-based enterprise has helped students raise millions of dollars in scholarship money, and Gray and his co-founders have signed several major partnerships and launched a web site, according to Gray. And Gray recently won a $40,000 investment during an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank. The Shark Tank experience netted Gray a lot of attention, as well as investors.
These days Gray is rubbing shoulders with a lot of powerful and well-known people.
He attended an event hosted by Oprah Winfrey to celebrate her SuperSoul 100 list of noteworthy people. One of his investors is the founder of AOL, and John Legend’s manager is on Scholly’s board of directors.
“Quite frankly, I am surrounded by very successful people and very wealthy people all the time,” he says. “You grow up when you are around those kinds of people, people who are different from you.
“These are things that are amazing, surreal, that have happened in my life, right?” he says.
But Gray has not forgotten his roots.
He says his Alabama upbringing has been a big help to his career because “it gave me a great perspective of the problem I was trying to solve. If I had not had the experience I had, I may not have thought to found Scholly. Without that experience, Scholly might not exist.”
These days Gray spends a lot of time on the road. “The big thing is that I travel quite a bit now. I don’t spend much time in Philly, probably only about 20 percent of my time.”
He does manage to get back to Birmingham occasionally, usually during the holidays, and he is trying to “engage with the Birmingham community. We are working with the Birmingham schools system to get the app for their schools.”
He also pays homage to the mentors he had at Ramsay. “The support of my mentors was the main reason I was able to win so many scholarships,” he says. “And that experience is ultimately one of the reasons I started Scholly in the first place, the experience of growing up in an underserved school system in Birmingham and being able to deal with that, to overcome that and then use it to start Scholly as a way to help students in a similar situation.”
It’s not just students who benefit from the service. Several cities and states, including Philadelphia, Memphis and Montana, have purchased the app for their students. The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and the Gates Millennium Scholars Foundation have also endorsed the app.
One of the success stories Scholly is promoting is that of a young woman from Birmingham.
“She is a student I actually went to high school with who got $40,000 in scholarship money through Scholly. She ended up going to Howard University and then returning to Birmingham, so we are helping students in Birmingham,” Gray says.
Although it is difficult with his schedule, Grays says he tries to strike a balance between work and life. “I think that just started about a year ago. I used to be all in, but if you stop and relax, you are able to think more clearly about the problem you have to solve than you can when you are working like a robot and physically drain yourself.”
Gray says he likes nature and likes reading. “And it may be sad to say, but I like trying different drinks. And I am 24 and in that dating heavily kind of mode.”
Although Scholly is a huge success, Gray is realistic.
“What I have learned is that just because a company is doing well at some point does not indicate success in 10 years,” he says. “We are a technology company and for a technology company, you have to look for different products and opportunities. I think we’re going to use the technology to expand beyond scholarships. I think you have to keep working hard until you go public or until you are acquired by a larger company.”
Gray says money-wise, things are going well for Scholly. “We are a very profitable venture,” he says.
And that is one of the aspects of his life now that takes some adjusting.
“It is such a drastic change in lifestyle that I have had to adjust to,” he says. “Imagine your mom, your family, people you know who didn’t even finish high school, opening up Forbes magazine and seeing a whole spread of your child there, right? That is why it is so surreal to my family, because it was not that long ago,” he says, his voice trailing off.
“Life is definitely great.”
Bill Gerdes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Hoover.