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This entrepreneur is making it easier for students to win scholarships

Raised by a single mother in Birmingham, Ala., Christopher Gray knew he wouldn’t be handed his college tuition on a silver platter. And despite getting $1.3 million in scholarships (which covered his four years at Drexel University with the rest to be redeemed if he decides to pursue a Master’s and PhD), Gray came out of the application process frustrated.

“There’s all this money in the marketplace looking for students. There are students on the other side and they can’t find money. And all this money gets unawarded,” Gray, 24, tells Yahoo Finance.

He thought there should be an easier way to find scholarships. So he created Scholly, a mobile and web app that instantly matches high school, college and graduate school students with scholarships they qualify for.

Scholarships in Scholly’s database are both need- and merit-based. The app narrows down your search with eight parameters (e.g., your state, your GPA, your race). When making your profile, there’s even a section titled “miscellaneous” in case there are other traits or qualities you may want to list, like being a vegetarian or left-handed.

Of course, Scholly is not the only option for students looking for tuition help. Fastweb is an online scholarship search engine and provides career planning services for users. And The College Board has a scholarship database called “Big Future” that offers 2,300 sources of financial aid. Scholarships.com has awarded more than $2.7 billion in financial aid since 1999, and offers an app that’s free to download.

The Scholly app, which launched in 2014, has been downloaded 600,000 times and students have won over $200 million in scholarships since it officially launched a year-and-a-half ago.

At least 40% of users are students of color, according to Gray. He says resources like Scholly can help those who might otherwise not be able to afford college, in part because they don’t have access to financial aid. “When you look at a lot of low-income students who are desperately looking for money for college, you’re looking at a lot of minorities who come from poor communities who don’t have access to aid; so that’s really been an important part of our user base,” he says.

The app costs $2.99, but Gray has been teaming up with organizations that are willing to cover the cost. He developed a program called Give: Scholly, which enables organizations and companies to purchase bulk codes and distribute them to students so they can get the app for free. Scholly’s partners include My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative President Obama launched to address the opportunity gap faced by boys and young men of color. He is also about to announce a partnership with a non-profit that’s paying for Scholly for 600,000 high school students.

In addition to non-profits, Scholly has teamed up with organizations like consumer lending company Springleaf Financial (OMF), which offers Scholly free to 250,000 of its customers.

Gray first gained national attention last year when he landed a $40,000 deal on “Shark Tank” from Lori Greiner and Daymond John. Scholly has since received $100,000 for winning last year’s “Rise of the Rest” business pitch competition hosted by AOL founder Steve Case and a $100,000 investment from StartUP PHL, an angel fund run by venture capitalist Josh Kopelman. Gray was on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list this year for his social entrepreneurship.

Though Scholly is not yet profitable, Gray says he and his eight full-time employees are happy with how the company is growing. He is finalizing deals with several Fortune 500 companies that offer tuition reimbursement programs that would provide those companies’ employees with the app for free.


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