An Exclusive Interview with Shark Tank Entrepreneur Christopher Gray
The Scholly founder opens up about everything from a childhood love of comics to his personal mission to help students across the nation find the funds to attend college.
February 20, 2015
by Joseph Master
First things first — you just got funded on Shark Tank. How do you feel about your deal?
I'm happy to be working with Daymond and Lori, and they are adding a lot of value already to Scholly.
What was it like to step into the limelight and pitch to the sharks?
The experience was amazing. It was like having a conversation and since I have done a lot of pitches in the past, I was confident and ready. The segment was edited a bit and didn't show a lot of the compliments they threw at me as well. It was fun.
You looked pretty composed in front of those cameras. What was running through your head?
I was excited to get an offer so quickly and that the Sharks were interested. As I said, there are things that were not aired that would have explained my composure. I have dealt with powerful people before so I wasn't intimidated. When you are on national TV, you are not there to just get a deal, you are there to make sure you look good to the 10 million people watching!
What has it been like working with Lori Greiner and Daymond John?
Lori and Daymond are amazing! They are so engaged and passionate about Scholly and what we are doing! They have made great PR connections as well as introductions to companies that we are looking to partner with! They trust our team and we value their input! Did I mention that they are amazing?!
So, you started the biggest fight that ever erupted in the “tank.” What was it like watching what transpired on TV?
I had a watch party so my friends, family and I watched it for the first time together. It was great! In my opinion as well as many on the Internet, it really made Scholly look good. We have millions of people on the Internet talking about us and we are number one in the app store. Scholly was the "face that launched a thousand ships" and we came out on top! I would have been happy to answer any questions Mark and Robert had, but Daymond and Lori gave me what I wanted in terms of a deal and their belief in what Scholly will become.
In fall 2013, you were a superhero on the cover of LeBow College’s Market Street magazine here at Drexel. What is the difference between you then and now?
I am definitely more mature now. I’m more refined. I’ve had a lot of experience in a very short time. Just between the College Board, Shark Tank, the press, incorporating, getting funding, it has all really helped me grow.
I’d also say that I think over the past year, I started to realize that Scholly isn’t just a business to me. I have a lot of moral conviction about what I’m doing. Scholly has become a personal crusade for me to help students. It’s extremely personal.
I recently had an experience helping undocumented immigrants and helping students who can’t pay for college. This really motivated me to move forward knowing that what we’re doing is really helping a lot of people, as well as building a prosperous business.
Before he founded Scholly and appeared on Shark Tank, Christopher Gray, a LeBow College of Business and Close School of Entrepreneurship student majoring in entrepreneurship,
earned $1.3 million in scholarship money with a little help from a friend. Here is the real story
In some cultures, there is an idea that you grow up to be who you were as a child. What’s the difference between you now and you as a kid?
I have fundamental beliefs and I think people change to a degree, but your core personality traits are really there at a young age. It’s a matter of whether those traits are nurtured by your environment.
As a kid, I was always trying to start something. When I was young, in 7th grade, I tried to do everything. I just wasn’t in the kind of environment that nurtured that as much. But the drive and determination and the idea that there was more to the world geographically and culturally than where I was has always motivated me to move forward. And to be better.
In terms of working on ventures with a social impact, I was always there. I started a nonprofit in high school. I was very involved with volunteerism. My nonprofit was a Christian-based volunteering organization called Genesis.
In terms of change, the entrepreneurship was always there. The desire to change was there. Overcoming adversity has helped me to weather a lot of the storms you have to weather as an entrepreneur. The journey was always there.
I was a lot more intense when you were younger. I’ve settled down a lot.
What did six-year-old Chris Gray love?
I loved video games. Specifically role-playing games like Final Fantasy. Back then, you had to read all the text. The story lines. And that really helped me to expand my vocabulary. So I’d pull out the dictionary. Because these games were for teenagers.
I used to enjoy the story and watching those characters grow. They overcame adversity. I loved seeing the point A to point B there. I didn’t like the fighting. I liked the character development.
I also loved comics. Superheroes, man. Specifically, Batman. When I was young, the entire concept was that you can rise from the ashes and be something great. And still be a normal human being and use your intelligence and willpower and resources to make things happen. Bruce Wayne was suave. He was a businessman. Intelligent. Serious. Intense. Focused. I was drawn to that character. We’re inherently drawn to those types of characters. It was really inspiring to see this business man who is also a hero, fighting crime in a city where the crime is never going to end. But he just kept going. And the villains kept coming back.
It was a defining moment in my childhood.
Are you always in your head? Are you the kind of guy who has entire conversations in your head before they happen?
Absolutely. Including this one (laughs). I am pretty layered. Sometimes a little too much. I have learned to be able to take some control in situations and remain focused. And show people what I am thinking rather than just try to dictate situations.
What is the happiest moment you can remember growing up?
This is kind of foreshadowing of what I do now with Scholly, actually. When I was in fourth grade, I won all of the “derby events” at school. I won the math competition, the spelling bee, the history competition and a few others. It’s funny, because I pretty much felt the same way then that I did when I won all my scholarships and became the Million Dollar Scholar.
What did it take, really, to win all of those scholarships?
It took months just to find them. That was the tough part, on top of working a job in at a clothing store. Helping out at home. This was over my junior and senior year. I was going to school. Dealing with some cultural differences.
I didn’t have a computer at home, so I had to go to the library. There was a 30-minute or hour limit because the computers were in such demand. So, I’d take 30 minutes to an hour. And then I’d have to get off, go back in line and wait again until I could get back on the computer to look up scholarships. I had to buy the stamps, mail the applications. Use my money to pay for gas. I had to stay after school so a teacher could help me with my essays and scholarships.
What was the teacher’s name?
It’s funny. I actually talked to her today just a few minutes ago. Her name is Tara Tidwell. I call her Ms. Tidwell. I still talk to her to this day. I met her when I was a freshman in high school. At the time, someone had won a bunch of scholarships and I found her and said: “I want you to help me do that!” And four years later, she helped me win $1 million in scholarships (laughs).
And now, she is just so proud, because she now feels that she was able to not only help me win a bunch of scholarships, but to help grow an individual who has helped thousands of people. It’s that ripple effect. When I spoke with her she was very emotional. Very happy. Very proud of that.
She said, “You’re adding value to the world.” She’s happy that I am earning this on my own.
Why did you pick Drexel? And after all the success, what kept you here when you could have left to run your company?
I’ve had opportunities to leave. But I want to run my own company. I don’t want to go to Wall Street or run a hedge fund. I don’t want to be a robot. I want to think for myself.
Drexel and the Close School gave me the opportunity to run Scholly for my co-op. If not for Drexel, I might have done something, but I wouldn’t be so far along. Scholly wouldn’t be as successful without the Entrepreneurship Co-op.
What was the best part of taking the Close School’s Entrepreneurship Co-op?
It meant a lot. To have that personal investment was great. It was this incredible journey of trying to balance being a student and being an entrepreneur; the financial investment; the press. It was the entire package.
It felt like being in more than just a physical incubator. It felt like Drexel became an organic incubator for me. As a whole. It felt great to have all of the support coming from the Close School and LeBow College of Business and Drexel’s communications people.
I have received incredible support from so many people.
What do you think about the Close School? Any thoughts?
I think the Close School has made a very positive impression on the Philadelphia startup community. Considering that the school is incubating companies from all the different colleges here at Drexel, and that the students have been very impressed with all the support.
The Close School works for the student experience. Definitely.
During your time at Drexel, what is the happiest moment you can remember?
Oh, I’d have to say it was in 2013 when I got on the homepage of USA Today. It was Scholly’s first, big national hit.
I knew the story was being written, but I had no idea it was going to be on the homepage.
I was hanging out with one of my friends on a Friday. We went out for drinks. And I barely drink. It was incredible.
When you were a kid, you played video games and read comics. So, today, what do you do when you get home from school?
I work! It’s Scholly 90 percent of the time. And if I’m not working, I am reading articles to help me learn. I firmly believe that you are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with. So, I try to surround myself with people who are not only doing similar things, but people who are inspiring, smart and make me want to learn more. I’m hyper-focused on growth and evolution.
I understand that where I came from has implications. My goal is to overcome that and to able to operate intellectually on the same level with such smart, engaging people without having a chip on my shoulder.
I am who I am not because of, but despite, where I came from. And I’m proud of where I am from. It’s just that I am more proud of where I came from for the right reason.
What feature of Scholly are you most proud of?
It’s the one parameter that says need vs. merit-based scholarships. That simple difference can completely change people’s perceptions about scholarships. It makes you realize that you don’t have to be poor or fit a certain demographic. That is the most important part of our app.
I consulted with lots of students from all demographics. You’d be surprised at how even wealthy people can have trouble paying for college.
What has your mother meant to you through this crazy ride?
My mother gave me my persistence. My perseverance. Those core personality traits that drive me. The intensity. The ability to figure things out.