Written by Rosalind Fournier
Photos provided by ABC Television
Did you know there’s a scholarship given annually to the student who writes the best plan for surviving a zombie apocalypse?
Christopher Gray does, along with plenty more about scholarships that help kids pay for school at a time when angst about college affordability and post-college debt are at an all-time high. At just 24, the Birmingham native has leveraged that knowledge into a highly successful start-up, Scholly, whose “patented scholarship-matching engine delivers a smarter, targeted list of scholarships that are uniquely suited” to particular students. The scholarships range from the little-known and obscure (see zombies, above) to large grants from major corporations. The app now boasts a million users and counting.
A Gritty Networker
Now living in Philadelphia, Gray grew up in a single-parent household in a relatively poor part of Birmingham, a neighborhood where his personal dreams for developing apps and launching startups often put him out of step with his classmates, some of whom were involved in violence and gangs. He wanted no part of that lifestyle.
“I didn’t have a lot of role models or like-minded peers at the school where I was,” Gray explains. “But I was a gritty networker even in high school, and I started developing mentors outside the city who believed in me.”
One was Dr. Karen Starks, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who ran a teen entrepreneurs’ program as part of her nonprofit, the Community Entrepreneurship Institute. “Chris heard about my program and asked if he could join,” Starks says. “He was always very focused on entrepreneurship and became a leader within the program.”
Gray was also focused on securing a college education. But the recession had just hit, and his mother—who was also raising Chris’ two much-younger siblings—had just lost her job. Chris knew he was going to need outside financial help, and lots of it. He spent months at the local libraries or at school vying for time on the computers trying to search for scholarships that seemed a good fit.
It was tedious work—Gray sometimes had to resort to typing out application essays on his phone—but it paid off handsomely. He ultimately won 34 different scholarships totaling $1.3 million and went on to study finance and entrepreneurship at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
But the work he’d put into finding money for college was always fresh on his mind, and it planted a seed that he could help countless others by developing a platform to streamline the scholarship-search process. Along with two co-founders, Bryson Alef and Nick Pirollo, he created Scholly. Soon after, Gray had his big break when he found his way onto the ABC hit “Shark Tank.” Still a junior at Drexel at the time, Gray appeared on the show so poised, passionate and confident that he received investment offers from two of the “sharks” even before he’d finished answering the others’ questions. After the episode aired on February 20, 2015, Scholly rocketed to the number-one spot on the iPhone and android app stores. Gray himself became an overnight sensation. Forbes put Gray at the top of its 2016 “30 Under 30 for Social Entrepreneurship” list; he’s been a guest at the White House three times; he has appeared on more than a dozen major media outlets and had the honor of ringing the opening bell of the Nasdaq. “Definitely,” he says in his laid-back way, “the dynamics of my life have changed.”
Scholly remains based in Philly, Gray’s adopted hometown, where he’s busy growing the company and thriving on the adrenaline that comes from running a business that makes a difference in people’s lives. “It’s faced paced and competitive; I’m working long hours, and I love this environment,” Gray says.
Still, he knows that in some stories that have described the challenges of his past, Birmingham gets a bad rap, and he’s eager to correct that. One quote reads, Being from Birmingham, you tend to want to get out…I wanted to be a tech entrepreneur. I wanted to escape and get to a place where I could do that. “The context of that question was that they asked me what was my perspective as a 17-year-old, and my answer was specifically about the part of Birmingham I grew up in,” Gray says today. “My neighborhood was a poverty stricken area. Most students and minorities in those communities remained ostracized—so here I was wanting to pursue a career in finance, and until I found some mentors who could help me, I didn’t see any future there. I didn’t know about places like the Innovation Depot. As an adult I can see the city differently, but as a kid it seemed limited.”
In fact, Gray says it’s no coincidence his first big success has come from a company with a socially conscious mission to help young people expand their horizons to pursue their dreams. “Millennials want to build businesses, but we also want to feel engaged with brands that have a higher purposes,” he explains. “The financial success is tied to the social impact.
“I have people come up and hug me now and tell me, ‘You helped me so much, or you helped my son or daughter…’ It’s a very moving experience.”