Christopher Gray is a man of firsts. Gray, who will graduate from Drexel University on June 12, is the first in his family to finish college and he may also be the first student to win a mind-boggling $1.3 million in scholarships — enough to pay for his bachelor’s, master’s, Ph.D., and then some. He’s certainly the first on ABC’s "Shark Tank" (below, right) to land a hotly contested deal that so infuriated investors Mark Cuban, Robert Herjavec and Kevin O’Leary they stormed off the set. Most impressive, though, Gray is the first to figure out how to help millions of students get a leg up on the scholarship game like he did and take the financial sting out of college tuition.

“The hardest part about getting money for college is finding the money,” says the 22-year-old finance and entrepreneur major. “It took me seven months. I decided to create Scholly, an app that turns the task of searching for scholarships into literally two minutes using our eight-parameter system.”

Humble beginnings

Gray’s life reads like a classic American rags-to-riches story. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, with a single mom and two younger siblings, Gray always felt out of place. He got good grades, his test scores were high, and he was filled with ambition. But he knew it would be a tough climb out of his inner-city community, which seemed to hold back almost everyone around him.

“I felt very, very, very different from a lot of people in my environment,” he says. “The culture doesn’t exactly value things that the rest of the world values.”

When it came time to think about college Gray knew he had to get creative. His family couldn’t afford a computer or college application fees, let alone tuition. “I don’t have parents who can help me out financially so I understood I had to work really hard and hold my own,” he says.

Gray started visiting his local library to search for scholarships, logging onto the public computer for 30 minutes at a time before having to hand it off and step back in line to wait for another 30-minute slot. It took months of searching and help from a teacher to write dozens of essays, but Gray finally landed a whopping 34 scholarships and off to college he went.

Christopher Gray, inventor of Scholly, with sharks swimming behind him in a tank

Spreading the wealth

At Drexel, located in Philadelphia, Gray blossomed. “I actually felt more at home in college than I felt back home,” he says. As word of the university’s “million-dollar scholar” got out, Gray began mentoring other students who were drowning in student loan debt and desperate for additional money to help pay for college. But just as he’d discovered while searching for his own scholarships, it was hard to find aid tailored to each person’s race, income and other variables. There were plenty of websites listing thousands of scholarships but no easy way to tell which ones someone qualified for.

Gray and two friends put their heads together and came up with Scholly, which they launched in 2013. The app’s database contains thousands of scholarships and is aimed at students in high school, college and grad school. By entering some simple information in eight key areas — including state, race, gender and grade point average — Scholly quickly creates a custom list of scholarships that would-be recipients have a good chance of winning. It also provides examples of attention-getting essays and email alerts when application deadlines are approaching. Best of all, the app is priced at an affordable 99 cents.

“We’re definitely looking to increase the number of scholarships [in the database] to make sure students have access to as much money as possible,” Gray says. “More organizations can also promote their scholarships to the demographics of students they want without having to wait for them to come to their websites.”

Swimming with Sharks

Lori Greiner and Daymond John of “Shark Tank” were so impressed by Gray when he appeared on the show in February that they teamed up and quickly (by “Shark Tank” standards) offered him exactly what he asked for: $40,000 for 15 percent of Scholly. The catch? Gray had to take the deal immediately. Their quick and decisive bid prevented the remaining Sharks from asking more questions, and they fumed out in a reality-TV huff. Watch his appearance:

Gray, who plans to pursue his MBA in a couple of years, says he couldn’t be more excited about how it all turned out. “Daymond and Lori are super engaged and helpful,” he says. “They backed Scholly for the right reasons and were able to add value in the right way.”

Since his appearance, the duo has helped him ink deals with several cities, states, corporations and schools to bulk purchase Scholly and offer it free to students. What was already a successful app has now helped several hundred thousand students win millions in scholarship money, and those numbers keep growing.

Most recently, John helped Gray partner with a new nonprofit initiative called My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, announced by President Barack Obama to help young men and boys of color succeed. Hundreds of thousands of participants across the country will now have free access to Scholly.

These days, Gray is focusing full time on Scholly, but it’s not his first foray into social entrepreneurship. In high school Gray started a nonprofit volunteering organization, and the year before he launched Scholly, he was a founding partner of the Dorm Room Fund, a venture firm run by students to invest in student startups.

“I definitely like working on ventures that have a social impact,” says Gray. “Considering my background that’s really important to me.”

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