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'Shark Tank' elevates Chris Gray's Scholly app

Drexel student/entrepreneur is out to build a big business from grant money

YOU MAY HAVE watched Christopher Gray's appearance last month on ABC's "Shark Tank," when the 23-year-old entrepreneur sparked a walkout some call the biggest on-air fight in the show's history.

But even before Gray's successful appearance on the show, during which entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to would-be investors, articles had already piled up about the fourth-year college student and the 99-cent Scholly app he created that links students with college scholarships.

Well, get ready because here comes another one.

I just can't say enough about Gray.

To paraphrase Alicia Keys, this man is on fire.

The Drexel University senior persuaded two of the "sharks" - Lori Greiner and Daymond John - to invest $40,000 in exchange for just 15 percent of his startup, but Gray was on an upward trajectory long before he even got to college.

This was a kid who came from practically nothing but who refused to let his circumstances define him. His mother was just 14 when she had him. It was one baby raising another. But from an early age, Gray showed signs of the entrepreneur he was to become. He started his first business when he was 13. It was a video-game delivery service operated out of his mother's minivan. It was a novel concept but impractical given the fact that he was still years away from being able to drive himself.

While a freshman in high school, he approached an English teacher, Tara Tidwell, who had helped another student win a generous amount of scholarship money, and asked her to assist him in doing the same. Since he didn't have a laptop, it meant he had to go to a public library to research scholarships for which he was eligible. He worked in either 30-minute or one-hour time shifts - the maximum amount of time he could monopolize a computer. He also visited Tidwell before and after school to get advice on his essays, which he wrote and rewrote, while also holding down a part-time job at a clothing store. He applied to be a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholar, which provides funding for students through graduate school. That program required him to write eight essays, which he later used to apply for other scholarships.

By graduation, Gray had been awarded a whopping $1.3 million in college scholarships.

The Million Dollar Scholar was born.

At Drexel, Gray began to help other students find scholarship money. He began speaking in schools and at conferences.

"I was helping people with different demographics, with different races, different economic backgrounds. And it became hard to find scholarships for all of these different sorts of people," said Gray, a finance and entrepreneurship major. "So, I said there has to be an easier way to scale this and a way to individually help all of these kids get money for college."

He enlisted the help of two computer-science majors - Bryson Alef and Nick Pirollo - to help him put together the app, and publicly launched it live on Fox 29 in 2013. Articles by USA Today, the Inquirer and the Daily News followed. A year later, when Gray pitched Scholly on "Shark Tank," the app had about 92,000 downloads with no marketing budget. Greiner pounced even before she was clear on how the app would be monetized, saying, "I believe in what you are doing."

The rest is Scholly history.

Since the show's air date, Scholly has been a top seller on iTunes.

Gray, who graduates in June, hopes to expand Scholly to help students get into college and also stay in until they graduate.

"I don't want it to be a 15-minutes-of-fame kind of thing," he said of all the interest the app is attracting. "I went on there for Scholly. . . . I'm not trying to go and make it about me even though it relates to my story. I'm a businessman. I'm trying to build a company."

Thanks to "Shark Tank," he's well on his way.