[The Upload] Birmingham Native Helping Kids Find College Cash

[The Upload] Birmingham Native Helping Kids Find College Cash

Christopher Gray is battling the student debt crisis through his Scholly app. The Shark Tank winner explains how racism, classism impacted his efforts.

by Lynne d Johnson, May 10, 2016

[The Upload] Birmingham Native Helping Kids Find College Cash

There’s a student debt crisis totaling about $1.3 trillion. It started with the recession of 2008, during a time when Christopher Gray, a young man from Birmingham, Alabama was looking to go to college. He ended up finding $1.3 million in scholarships and now he wants to help other students stay in the black.

Within the past two years Gray went from being a college senior at Drexel University to launching Scholly, a social enterprise mobile app that landed him on Shark Tank making a deal, as well as helping students raise nearly $31 million in college scholarships. Now, with a new partnership, Gray is also helping students, who had to take out loans, make lower payments.

Ebony.com caught up with Gray to learn how he raised over a million dollars for college and how he’s using tech to make higher education more affordable for everyone else.

EBONY.COM: How did you find $1.3 million in scholarships? And what did it take to accomplish this impressive feat?

Christopher Gray: It took me seven months. You have to use Google and all these different websites. The websites take about 17 minutes of sign-up time. When you go to them they give you all of these lists of scholarships, like thousands of them, that you have to sort through and you don’t know which ones match or if they’re a scam. I didn’t have Internet access growing up, so I had to go to the library with only 30 minutes or an hour on the computer at a time.

So in this process of using Google and websites and other databases that either weren’t accurate or legitimate, I ultimately found a bunch of scholarships and I applied for them all, like 75 – 80, and I didn’t even plan to win. But I started getting them all. That included the Bill Gates Fellowship, the Cocoa-Cola Scholarship and the Horatio Alger’s Scholarship.

EBONY.COM: Can you tell me a little bit about your background before college.

CG: I have a single mom and two siblings. My mom lost her job during the peak of the recession. I had good grades and a good GPA. I started a nonprofit in high school and was president of a lot of different organizations. I had over 400 hours in volunteer service. A lot of colleges weren’t giving a lot of aid at the time I applied to school because of the recession. So I had to apply for all of these scholarships because I wasn’t going to be able to get loans because of my mother’s credit.

EBONY.COM: Did you always know you wanted to go to Drexel?

CG: It was important for me to get out of the South because there wasn’t a lot of economic opportunity there and there’s still some racism. I wanted to go where there was more opportunity for people who look like me. I applied to other schools, but Drexel worked with me to be able to accept the scholarship dollars I got. There was an issue that I had so much money that people didn’t know what to do with it. There’s paying for tuition and then there’s survival; Drexel kind of worked with me to finance my education in a way that I could survive while in college.  

EBONY.COM: Did you go to college thinking you wanted to start this business?

CG: My major was entrepreneurship. When I started Scholly I was doing a lot of public speaking and trying to help a lot of people. Scholly actually came out of the frustration of not being able to help everyone. So I created an app and then I made it $1 so that it would help me pay for producing and running it. And then Shark Tank happened. That’s when I really decided to turn it into a business. Shark Tank was the inflection point that this could really be a big business.

EBONY.COM: How did you get to Shark Tank and how did that experience help you?

CG: We were on USA Today and the producers reached out to us. I rehearsed with them for months and I filmed for about an hour but what you saw was edited down to about seven minutes. We ended up making a deal with Daymond John and Lori Greiner and started one of the biggest fights in Shark Tank history. Mark Cuban, Kevin O’Leary and Robert Herjavec walked out because Daymond John gave me a deal early because he cared about the impact value. The three who walked out called Scholly a charity. 

EBONY.COM: Being a social enterprise, do you find it even harder to find investment?

CG: I’m going through the fundraising plans now and a lot of it is pattern recognition. We don’t have a Black Bill Gates or a Black Mark Zuckerberg. To some degree, African Americans have to prove ourselves because there’s no archetype for our success. We’re going to a Venture Capitalist trying to solve a problem who may or may not understand because they don’t have the background to see it. I had someone tell me that I can only market to low-income minorities. That’s because in their minds they can’t see the big need to be able to pay for college because they’re rich. You have this disparity with people even seeing the problem that we’re trying to solve. What they see as a problem is built on their experience. And there’s subconscious bias too. There’s some people who just don’t think we’re smart. People don’t even realize they’re thinking this way and they act on these ways they were raised to think and they don’t even know they’re doing this. It’s like we have to prove in ways that other groups may not. We need to show more traction. A lot of people who get funded in the Valley it’s because of connections, and classism plays a role too.

I work really hard and when people see my story they tend to take an interest. There was a Cadillac commercial that had a child actor playing my story with me growing up. People are kind of fascinated by it, it’s like a Black child can’t come up from the ghetto and do this.

EBONY.COM: How does the app work? Is there a matching algorithm?

CG: You fill in your state, race, GPA, whether you need a merit-based scholarship. It takes two minutes to fill it in and then you’re instantly matched with every scholarship you qualify for. After you sign up and get the matches, the app is adaptive so it’s for high school students, college students and grad students. The app will give you updates anytime it finds a scholarship that you match with. So it’s not just: here’s a listing, here’s what you got, it’s constantly giving you new opportunities. You can apply for the opportunity and report which ones you got which also helps your profile. And now we’ve established a partnership that gives students the opportunity to refinance their loans so they can get a lower interest rate and lower monthly payment. From our website if you click on our partner link, you also get $100 toward your first payment. Some people have already gotten their interest rate dropped by 4%.

EBONY.COM: Is this a Web scrape or are companies paying to list with you?

CG: We don’t make any money from that. We are a marketplace and we’re connecting to different resources. We will try to make money in other ways as we get more users, but right now we’re focused on connecting people to the right opportunities.

EBONY.COM: How much impact has Scholly made so far?

CG: Our total user base is over 600,000 right now and we’ve helped students raise over $31 million in scholarships.

EBONY.COM: What do the next two years look like?

CG: Right now we launched the partnership with CommonBond to help refinance federal loans and get $100 toward your first payment. (Click here for more details) We’re also hiring sales people to look at more partnerships. We’re looking to partner with nonprofits that want to use Scholly to raise money. So for every student they have download Scholly, we would actually donate $1 per student to your nonprofit. We’re investing in organizations that are helping students like we are.

Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of technology and everything else since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.


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