He Won $1.3M In Scholarship Money. Now He Makes Money Empowering Others To Do So: Scholly’s Christopher Gray On Mogul Watch
This is one in a Moguldom original series that shines the light on the founders featured on MogulWatch, a comprehensive list of startups that have received venture capitalist funding. Find out how much money they have received from whom, and news and data about their company.
Most 26-year-old men living in Los Angeles are not focused on helping people around the world find money for higher education with little or no debt, but Christopher Gray is not the average 26-year-old.
You could say Gray has a track record of success. As a high schooler, he dedicated eight months to looking for scholarship money, ultimately landing $1.3 million dollars in scholarships that helped him avoid accruing debt while he attended Drexel University, a private Philadelphia-based research university where he studied economics.
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Eight years later, Gray is the founder and CEO of Scholly, an app that has helped 3 million high school students, college and grad students with the process of applying for scholarships. Collectively, Scholly users have won $100 million in funds to attend colleges and universities.
For $2.99 per month, users gain access to lists of scholarships best suited for them, along with AI-powered proofreading for applications and a way to track application status while on the go.
Gray credits Scholly’s success to his team’s tenacity and a boost from his appearance on “Shark Tank,” which landed him a deal with investors and sharks Daymond John and Lori Greiner. It was the biggest fight in “Shark Tank” history, Gray said on his website.
Since then, Scholly has grown to include actor and activist Jesse Williams, star of “Gray’s Anatomy”, as an advisor and brand ambassador. Investors and entertainment entrepreneurs Will and Jada Smith created a scholarship fund with Scholly to help students aspiring to work in the entertainment industry. And Scholly recently launched a scholarship to help one lucky student-athlete win $10,000 to pay for college with support from the LeBron James “Student-Athlete documentary by HBO, SpringHill Entertainment, and UnitedMasters.
Some Black entrepreneurs have fallen into what I call the “white Silicon Valley mindset.” They only want to focus on raising money. On the front page of their website, they will share whom they’re backed by, and it’s unfortunate to see some get caught up in just fundraising. Entrepreneurs must learn that who backs you doesn’t make you profitable. You must focus on making money.” — Christopher Gray, founder and CEO of Scholly app, in a Moguldom interview
Gray spoke to Moguldom about helping students, focusing on revenue over fundraising and being unapologetic.
Moguldom: Why did you start Scholly?
Christopher Gray: When I was in high school, I won $1.3 million in scholarships. It took me about eight months to find all those different scholarships. I became homeless because of that and a bunch of other things. When I went to college, I realized a lot of other students had the same issue — the issue where there’s all this money in scholarships, but you can’t find it. Not being able to find money has caused many students to end up in debt. I wanted to solve this problem. Even before I started Scholly, I met a student who wanted to go to Morehouse. With my help, he was able to go into his first year with scholarship money. I wondered, how can I help as many people as possible using technology? And this is why I created Scholly. Scholly turns a long, time-consuming process of looking for money for college into minutes.
Moguldom: How many people have you helped thus far?
Christopher Gray: Right now, Scholly has 3 million users, and we’ve helped those users collectively win $100 million in scholarships.
Moguldom: Finding $100 million in scholarships is fantastic. Are there any other notable wins for Scholly?
Christopher Gray: One of the big things we’ve done is helping so many kids. We are a social enterprise at its best, right? We’re helping people, and creating a business around it which I think is powerful and unique. I think another big win for us has been helping these kids win money for college. A lot of these kids have been people who needed that last
thousand dollars to graduate college, or to get into college, or to stay in school. I’ll be at speaking engagements seeing kids who come and say, “Dude, I was going have to drop out of school, and because of Scholly, I got $20,000 to stay in school, and I’m now working for Goldman Sachs,” or they will say they are at a big tech company. Also, we’ve gotten some pretty cool endorsements from Oprah and Jesse Williams and some other cool people. We also just partnered with Will and Jada Smith and that was cool. It has not only been great to help so many but to garner the support of other people we look up to in the Black community. It’s been great.
When I talk about issues surrounding the industry, being a Black founder, eFtc., I don’t care if the whole audience is white. I have said things like “White people, y’all really don’t want us at your companies.” — Christopher Gray, founder and CEO of Scholly app
Moguldom: How much have you raised in capital for Scholly?
Christopher Gray: We only raised an angel round. We had the money from “Shark Tank”, and we also had the money we got from Steve Case (AOL Founder), Kevin Plank (Under Armour founder and COE) and StartUp PHL. I think in total maybe around $400,000. We’re profitable. We haven’t had to raise any money.
Moguldom: Wow, you have done a lot with the $400,000 considering how much money you found for your users.
Christopher Gray: Yeah. Many founders prioritize fundraising money over making money, and that’s just silly. I have seen founders raise millions of dollars and then burn $500,000 a month and then they need to raise more money, or they hire 50 people, and they only need 10 people, and it adds up. We decided to focus on making money, and we are successful at it. I’m not trying to shade anyone. I meet founders sharing how much money they have raised, but when I ask, “what’s your revenue?” they said they have none. I think people look at raising money as a milestone rather than making money.
Moguldom: You touched on something important. Many founders get lost in looking to raise capital, but they’re not focusing on revenue, and I’m always surprised by that. It’s a good thing you understand the concept of growing a business.
Christopher Gray: It’s very common, and I think it’s unfortunate some Black entrepreneurs have fallen into what I call the “white Silicon Valley mindset,” and they only want to focus on raising money. On the front page of their website, they will share whom they’re backed by, and it’s unfortunate to see some get caught up in just fundraising. Entrepreneurs must learn that who backs you doesn’t make you profitable. You must focus on making money.
Moguldom: What would your team say about your leadership?
Christopher Gray: I think my team and my friends know I’m very honest. In honesty there’s truth, and there’s also power. I believe being unapologetic about what you’re doing, the mission you’re trying to achieve and also being honest with the people you’re working with and the people that you are raising money from is essential. All those things require honesty. Because at the end of the day, that goes further than just smiling in someone’s face and not getting valuable feedback. When I talk about issues surrounding the industry, being a Black founder, etc, I don’t care if the whole audience is white. I have said things like “White people, y’all really don’t want us at your companies.” I tell people not to lay and wait for an opportunity or focus on going to an Ivy League school, to go and work with someone at a company who’s never going to promote you. They’re just going to treat you like a quota, and you’ll never get into a leadership position. If they keep you, the highest you’ll ever move up to is chief diversity officer. For those people, the best thing about being Black is you being Black to help a quota. My thought is I may make some people mad, but I can create waves of change along the way.
A lot of companies have forsaken people of color and people who are poor because they don’t make good customers. I think we can empower those people and then disrupt those companies. We’re probably going to make a lot of people mad, and that’s OK. However, I know we’re going to make a lot more people happy.” — Christopher Gray, founder and CEO of Scholly app
Moguldom: Chris “straight-no-chaser” Gray, huh?
Christopher Gray: I think you must be that way. I’m over the whole assimilation thing. I believe that you can’t change some people in these industries. I have friends that work at companies where they’ll be outperforming their white counterparts who are making $30,000-to-$40,000 more than them. We must, as African Americans, become builders. That’s something I’m proud of with Scholly. We built our own and own our own shit, and we created our own infrastructure. If we as African Americans can hire our own people and create our own companies, then we have brands that can command the same authority as our counterparts. I think rather than only focusing on trying to infiltrate someone else’s brand and trying to take control, let’s start building and creating our own. You look at Colin Kaepernick. Would that have happened if there were Black team owners? Probably not. We don’t have that power or our own infrastructure. I think it’s important enough for us to build and it’s important for us to be unapologetic about these issues because I think you can’t change some people. You can only be yourself, chip in and help to carve our own way. If we don’t do that ourselves, then not many other people will.
That’s the thing about building a brand that lasts. When you have done so, it will become your legacy whether you’re at the helm or not.” — Christopher Gray, founder and CEO of Scholly app
Moguldom: If we can look ahead five years from now, what does Scholly look like?
Christopher Gray: I see Scholly being a company that will take on the student debt crisis and help a lot of people who are poor and are adversely affected by student debt. We want to touch people from going into college all the way up until they leave college, get a job, all of that. I think that there’s cool stuff coming we are announcing in February. I think we are in an excellent position to leverage our brand to be able to empower people that haven’t been in power. And, quite frankly, the tech industry, a lot of tech founders have been ignored, and I think that those are people that we want. We want everyone, but I believe a lot of companies have forsaken people of color and people who are poor because they don’t make good customers. I think we can empower those people and then disrupt those companies. We’re probably going to make a lot of people mad, and that’s OK. However, I know we’re going to make a lot more people happy.
Moguldom: Do you see Scholly being acquired or will you move on to something else? Is this a passion project you plan to keep?
Christopher Gray: I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. I think every company who eventually obtains investors, thinks about being acquired. So to that point, Scholly can’t be my passion project. Ultimately, we’ll have exited. We’ll go public eventually or acquisition, but I think if your business is worth someone acquiring, you will have the right partner and the right company, and it can still be your passion. You can still grow the company. I look around at all these other companies that have been acquired, and they still look good. You can still have your vision, and you can still have your brand. That’s the thing about building a brand that lasts. Because when you have done so, it will become your legacy whether you’re at the helm or not.
Moguldom: Could you see yourself selling to a Bank of America, Wells Fargo, SunTrust or any student loan companies?
Christopher Gray: No, I can’t sell to a Bank of America. No. No. I couldn’t do that.
Moguldom: So that’s a firm no, then?
Christopher Gray: No. No. No.