Extraordinary Under 30: Chris Gray of Scholly

How often does your Facebook feed fill up with images laced with inspirational quotes like this?

She believed she could, so she did.

It always seems impossible until it’s done.

If you can’t stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it.

You might like or share, then move on with your life without the power of these words taking root. You’ve clicked a button, but for some reason your life hasn’t changed.

What these quotes in and of themselves lack is a real life example. A backstory. Proof. Today, we have a living example of the truth of these words. He’s someone who believed he could, even when it seemed impossible, so he did. He couldn’t stop thinking about his goal, so he worked for it even when the odds seemed stacked against him. Ultimately, he succeeded, and now uses his success to help others do the same.

Chris Gray scholly

His name is Chris Gray, and his journey has been nothing short of amazing. He grew up in an underserved community in Alabama. His single mom was raising three kids. His K-12 education took place in a rough, inner-city school district.

“There was violence, gangs, and a culture filled with anti-intellectualism,” recounts Chris. “Students who were bright and motivated were often overshadowed and smothered.  That coupled with a lack of economic opportunity made it even harder to succeed no matter how hard I worked.”

Despite the challenges, Chris didn’t give up. He had a goal he couldn’t stop thinking about. He wouldn’t stop working towards it. That goal was a college education.

Chris was a bright kid, and got accepted into Drexel University, but he needed funding. He wasn’t all about student loans. (I told you he was bright.) He instead decided to apply to as many scholarships as humanly possible. It was a harrowing process.

“I spent long and laborious hours searching and applying for scholarships on sites like Fast Web and Scholarships.com. They were really the only thing out there at the time.  It would take you about 20 minutes to put in all of your personal information and then the sites would bring up hundreds of ‘matches’ that you 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.  That forced me to have to apply for some scholarships via my cell phone, and 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.”

He brought his A game, and his efforts paid off. In fact, they paid off so well that he was awarded $1.3 million in scholarships.

Yes, you read that right. Million.

It was more than enough to fund his tuition and living expenses. In retrospect, the whole college thing wasn’t so impossible, after all. Chris had proved that it could be done, but he didn’t want to stop there. He had a new goal: to make the same thing possible for everyone else, especially if they lacked proximity to opportunity.

“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,” relates Chris, speaking of his scholarship-finding app. “The goal of Scholly is to streamline the search process and to give students access to funds to pay for college.”

scholly app

To set his app apart, Chris looked through a ton of scholarships to pinpoint consistent criteria that make students eligible. Today, those criteria make up the app’s unique “eight parameter system” which cuts down on the time students have to dedicate to sorting through scholarships for which they may or may not qualify. To combat the computer vs. phone problem, students can start an application on a computer, save it and later pick up where they left off, or vice versa.

Once again, he was smart about funding his goal. First, he took advantage of the resources around him as a college student.

“Starting a company in college had some major advantages.  The upside is that you are in college and with entrepreneurship at the top of everyone’s minds, you have access to mentors and a lot of free capital through competitions.  Between Drexel and other competitions, I won around $130,000 dollars for Scholly.  Similar to scholarships, I became pretty good at raising ‘free money'.  Also, as a student you have access to a variety of mentors and programs that can assist you in starting and growing your company.”

But he didn’t take his growth for granted. In fact, he actively sought more. He appeared on Shark Tank in 2015, exposing the world to Scholly.

“Our decision to go on Shark Tank was about the exposure even more than merely getting an investment. There are 10 million viewers who watch the show so the marketing is priceless,” he shares. “Regardless, I knew that for the pitch I would have to be extremely well prepared and know my business inside and out. I prepared for months to be ready for any kind of question they could potentially ask me.”

chris gray shark tank

His appearance was one of the most explosive ever, prompting two sharks to bid right off the bat, and two others to leave the room in frustration as they felt they didn't have time to ask Chris more of the questions he had prepared so well for.

“I suggest other entrepreneurs do the same.  It is all about the preparation and work you do before going out and fundraising.  Make sure you know everything there is to know about your company/brand as well as the category it resides in. I even advise doing mock investor presentations so that you get familiar with the Q&A process and therefore are ready and confident when the time comes to step in front of real potential investors.”

Thanks to Chris's work obtaining investors and exposure on prime time TV, Scholly helped students win over $35 million in scholarships in less than two years. He’s not only changing students’ lives, though. At $2.99 per user account, he’s making money while doing it.

Profitability isn’t always an easy point to convey when you’re a social entrepreneur. In fact, Chris identifies it as the differentiating problem when you start a business that’s also going to help people.

“I think one of the only real issues social entrepreneurs face is positioning. We have to show others that we are building a business and not simply a non-profit,” says Chris. “I think social entrepreneurs should spend time illustrating how their financial success directly relates to their social impact.”

What if you have an idea to solve a problem for the greater good, but can’t figure out how to monetize it? You may want to take a step back and reevaluate the situation.

“If you are solving a problem, there is always a way to monetize it,” Chris encourages. “Look at your product, your data, partners and even your customer needs to find ways to turn what you are doing into a thriving business and something that will change the world at the same time.”

The next time you like one of those posts on Facebook, think of Chris. Allow his story to inspire you to take action on your own goals, no matter how impossible they may seem. Whether you’re focused on your own self-fulfillment or changing the world, know that if you continue working for it, nothing is impossible, especially with Chris and his team at Scholly working so hard to bring opportunity to everyone.


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Femme Frugality is a personal finance writer and contributor at Invibed. She loves adventure, baseball, and naps, and hates paying full price for anything. You can learn more about her on her blog.

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