The Unbound Collection by Hyatt and SkiftX present The Freedom to be Extraordinary content series, which explores how breaking free from convention can lead to extraordinary success. These conversations will reveal how leading innovators and entrepreneurs approach creativity and how they’re embracing the freedom to be extraordinary.
Christopher Gray was always a high-achieving student, earning straight A’s and winning academic competitions as early as first grade. But raised by a single mother balancing two jobs and three children in Birmingham, Alabama, he grew up under deep poverty during the height of the recession, leaving him without a viable way of paying for the high cost of college tuition.
Gray wasn’t going to let that stop him. “I’d be damned if I worked as hard as I did, and I wasn’t able to go to college due to economic hardship,” he says. For seven months, he spent close to 12 hours a week searching and applying for scholarships at his local public library and on his cell phone, earning a remarkable $1.3 million in scholarships. The money, as well as the hard academic work he put in, allowed him to study finance and entrepreneurship at Drexel University in Philadelphia and cover his living expenses for all four years. It also made him the first member of his family to graduate college.
His own personal experience helped him realize how many students were facing the challenge of affording college, as well as how much scholarship money is actually out there. “The hardest part about getting money for college is finding it,” he says. Gray, along with co-founders Nick Pirollo and Bryson Alef, built Scholly, an app and web platform that connects scholarships with eligible students, to simplify the traditionally cumbersome process.
Scholly began garnering a lot of press soon after its launch in 2015. Early that year, Gray, still a full-time college senior at Drexel, appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank, sparking the biggest feud in the show’s history. He left with $40,000 in exchange for 15 percent equity in the company, and shortly after his appearance, Scholly jumped to the top of the iOS and Google Play app stores. Scholly has since helped hundreds of thousands of students and families find over $70 million in scholarship money.
While Gray’s story is inspiring, there have been challenges along the way. “There aren’t a lot of African Americans in tech,” he explains. “It was rare to find people who not only looked like me, but had similar economic roots. Coming from Birmingham, I didn’t have access to resources others did. I wasn’t exposed to the world of technology and venture capital.” Beyond race and class, Gray, now 25 years old, was also much younger than most technology entrepreneurs. “There was definitely an experience and knowledge gap. I had to learn at a really fast pace. I’m lucky enough to have an amazing support network who serve as mentors to me.”
Gray says putting in the hard work is key to achieving success. He advises fellow young entrepreneurs to “attend networking events, make connections, follow up with those connections and add value to those relationships.” Gray says, There aren’t any shortcuts to success. You have to be persistent to control your own destiny.”
Read more articles from the The Unbound Collection by Hyatt interview series below.
This content was created collaboratively by The Unbound Collection by Hyatt and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.