How Christopher Gray turned his scholarship search challenges into an app with over 4 million users

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 27, 2024 7:51 AM EDT
Christopher Gray. Photo Credit: X, formerly Twitter.

Christopher Gray is the founder of Scholly, an app that provides scholarship funding opportunities for students. He turned the challenges he faced while searching for college scholarships into an opportunity to help others. Scholly has over 4 million users and has helped provide over $100 million in scholarships.

Gray was raised by a single mother in Birmingham, Alabama. He grew up at a time when many people didn’t pursue education beyond high school. His expectations were limited by the urban poverty that he was accustomed to. An awards ceremony celebrating the scholarships and college acceptances of the graduating class inspired Gray and set him on the path to success.

As a senior, he applied for all the scholarships he was eligible for. It was a grueling process searching for scholarships, finding the legitimate ones, and essays on leadership and community service. After seven months of searching for scholarships, Gray secured $1.3 million in scholarship funding. The challenges he faced would go on to help millions of students in their scholarship search.

Gray used his scholarship funding to pursue finance and entrepreneurship at Drexel University. The glaring absence of other Black students at the predominantly white institution inspired him to come up with a solution. He had founded Genesis, an organization geared toward helping students get volunteer opportunities during high school, and had experience creating a social enterprise.

It was really hard and long, and many lists were just data mining information, so some were not legitimate scholarships. Having to spend so much time looking for the scholarships and then actually getting them was hard. It’s one of the reasons why I started Scholly, because I was like, wow, there is money out there, but it’s just really hard to find,” said Gray.

In addition to studying and planning for the future, Gray spent the bulk of his time building a scholarship app. He worked alongside two co-founders to design the first version of the Scholly from his dorm room. They finalized its design within four months. Scholly is similar to job boards and career networking sites in that it matches students seeking scholarships to available funders. The selections reflect the students’ skills, aspirations, interests, and qualifications.

He used $100,000 from pitch competitions, $400,000 in grants from investors, and his remaining scholarship funds to fund and launch the app in 2015. He also appeared on Shark Tank where he reaped a total of $40,000. Scholly was rated as the number one app in both the iOS App Store and the Google Play Store for three weeks following its launch. The founder’s focus on fostering sustainable business growth has enabled more than four million students to secure funding for higher education.

“Understand the market is tough. It’s tough for white founders, so it’s bare bones for Black founders. We had to create a business model to scale, to sustain itself, and be profitable. Scale that amazing product first and think about distribution and other things later so you can sustainably grow the business,” he explained.

In August 2023, student lending company Sallie Mae acquired Scholly. The platform is now free and accessible for all users who can search and apply for millions of dollars in scholarships. Sallie Mae recently awarded $250,000 in scholarships through its Bridging the Dream Scholarship for high school seniors. A majority of the recipients are attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Scholly has also become a hub for scholarships and sports-exclusive scholarships from companies and celebrities such as Amazon, Google, and Lil Nas X. Gray has successfully turned his challenges into a vital resource for students in pursuit of college funding.