Need a Scholarship? There’s an App for That! Interview with Scholly Founder Christopher Gray
College application season is in full swing. One of the biggest questions on students’ (and parents’) minds besides where they’ll be enrolled this time next year is how they’re going to pay for it all. Unfortunately, many families cannot afford to pay for college out of pocket and their institution of choice can’t provide adequate aid. The ultimate question becomes: How do you avoid the staggering student loan debt that follows graduates well into their careers?
The good news is, there are millions of dollars in scholarships (both need and merit-based) to be had and they can all be found on Scholly (www.myscholly.com). Scholly is a web and app platform that quickly matches students to the scholarships they personally qualify for. Scholly’s patented matching engine uses 8 parameters (such as gender, state, GPA, race, etc.) to quickly filter and deliver a targeted list of appropriate scholarships along with links and deadlines. The app is just $3 which covers both web and phone access.
(In addition to buying Scholly on an individual basis, the Buy 2 Give program allows companies, government agencies and other entities to buy the app in bulk to provide to their constituents. Many cities and companies have been giving back to their community by offering Scholly to local high school and college students.)
Q&A WITH CHRISTOPHER GRAY, FOUNDER OF SCHOLLY
Describe the environment you were brought up in.
I grew up in Birmingham, AL with a single mom and two baby siblings. My mother lost her job in 2008 when the recession hit. In fact, many people lost their jobs. Also, the fact that I was in an under funded, inner city school system didn’t help. There was violence, gangs, and a culture filled with anti-intellectualism. Students who were bright and motivated were often overshadowed and smothered, and that coupled with a lack of economic opportunity made it even harder to succeed no matter how hard you worked. If you were interested in things outside of the entertainment industry and sports, the chances of you finding like-minded peers were slim to none. Despite that, I worked hard and started my own organizations to create my own opportunities. I refused to allow that environment to define me and stagnate my intellectual potential.
How did you find the self-motivation to extricate yourself from those circumstances when so many others around you were not motivated?
At the end of the day, many would call me an outlier and an exception to the rule. I had never had any real desire to “fit in” and remained intellectually driven despite the culture I grew up in. While I didn’t have like minded peers, I did have great mentors who were from outside of Birmingham who helped me, supported me, and provided me with opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. It was still tough being an oddball and being so different than those around you. However, having successful mentors were somewhat of a North Star to me, directing me toward my freedom even if it was just intellectually.
Did you have any help or mentoring in terms of applying for colleges? If so, who were your mentors?
Since my high school guidance counselor didn’t have much time to help, I actually relied on websites and even added random people on Facebook who got into the schools I was applying to. It was pretty effective and some jumped on the phone with me to help. It was amazing how kind people were. These were people from schools like NYU, Drexel, Penn, and more. In my mind, what better way to find out how to get in a school than to ask the people that got in. I’m sure they thought I was weird, but I was a 17-year-old boy trying to get into college so I didn’t care. I also had a teacher who helped me with my essays so that was helpful. In fact, she was the same teacher who helped me with my scholarship essays.
Describe how you began searching for scholarships on your phone. How did you know how to search – to put in the right terms, etc. that eventually led to you getting 1.3 million in scholarship money to fund your education at Drexel? What particular talents did you use, and how can others learn from your example?
When I had to search for scholarships, I used 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 give 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 a very short period of time. The forced me to have to apply for some scholarships via my cell phone. For some scholarships 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.
I started looking for scholarships during my junior year of high school, allowing me to spend that time searching in order to use my senior year to actually apply for everything. In hindsight, this was an effective strategy considering my lack of resources at the time.
How did you get the idea to turn your knack for scholarship “findology” into a business?
I found that the hardest part about getting money for college was actually finding the funds. There is money out there, but students do not know where to find it. The search process took me months and that was with an ungodly amount of grit and persistence. It can take some students even longer and most just give up altogether. There had to be an easier way. There have to be certain things each scholarship looks for that makes students qualify for them.
That’s how I came up with our “eight parameters system” for Scholly. I looked through a lot of scholarships to find out what criteria made a student eligible for a scholarship. That’s the core of the Scholly search. The goal of Scholly is remove the search process and to give students access to funds to pay for college.
Talk about starting Scholly while you were still in college.
Starting a company in college has both its advantages and disadvantages. 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” for Scholly Also, as a student you have access to lots of mentors and programs that can assist you in starting and growing your company.
The downside is of your course that you are a student and you have to take these annoying things called classes. As one could imagine, it was incredibly difficult trying to take five classes each term while running a growing company. The choice between being a good student and a great entrepreneur was a daily struggle. It’s really tough to strike the balance.
What was the turning point where you knew this could be a real business?
Starting Scholly was all around the notion of helping other people. In order to do that, I had to create a sustainable and growing business. We hit a turning point when my team and I realized that we couldn’t simply rely on press to keep us afloat. We had to commit full time to the company in order to push things forward.
What has been your greatest challenge getting your business off the ground?
My greatest challenge was definitely trying to balance being a student and running a company.
How many millions of dollars in scholarships have been awarded to students using Scholly?
Currently, we have helped students raise over $15 million. We have tracked that through self reporting. When our new app comes out next month, we will be able to track other metrics. [The app is now live]
Besides leading students to potential scholarship matches for them, do you also offer advice on how to apply successfully?
Our new app will provide tips on the application process.
Do you worry that by raising awareness of all that “hidden money” that the competition will get tougher and make scholarships harder, not easier, to obtain?
Our goal right now is make the scholarship search process as easiest as possible. By doing so, we will make scholarships more competitive. However, our goal is to eventually create a market place where more scholarships can be created and promoted to students to increase the supply side of the scholarship space to help meet the increase in demand.
Do you have any statistics on the amount of student debt that currently exists in the U.S.?
How do you see the future of Scholly? How will the concept and the company evolve?
Scholly’s mission to provide access to opportunity. While we are starting with scholarships, we plan to begin to match students with and promote other educational opportunities as well. Our slogan is, “opportunity for all” and we plan to provide that access through our platform.