Christopher Gray couldn't even afford college application fees, let alone tuition. His single mother was out of work, and there were two siblings to think about, then ages 2 and 3.
But with a passion for entrepreneurship, the Birmingham, Ala., student dreamed of attending a college in the Northeast so he could be close to New York City and other major business centers.
"So the onus was really on me. I had to deal with it myself," recalled Gray, now 21 and a junior at Drexel University.
For three months, he holed up in the local library — he didn't have a computer at home — and searched out and applied for more than 70 college scholarships. Gray, an A-B student in high school who had served in leadership roles and started his own nonprofit company, had astounding success.
He received 34 scholarships worth $1.3 million — enough to get his bachelor's, his master's and his doctorate, plus cover his living expenses with some left over to invest.
Now, Gray — since dubbed "the Million Dollar Scholar" — has found a way to help other teens find scholarship money. He and two associates have developed a mobile app called Scholly — shorthand for "scholarships" — for the iPhone and Android.
A public service app and website
The app has been available for only about a month, but several thousand downloads have sold. Gray and his colleagues decided to keep the price at 99 cents because their intent is more public service than profit.
All proceeds at this point are going back into the company, said Nick Pirollo, 23, one of Gray's partners. He is a computer and electrical engineering major from New Jersey who graduated last month. He updates the app and manages the website, Myscholly.com.
As a student at a magnet high school in Birmingham, Gray distinguished himself early on. He graduated with a 3.9 GPA while leading the local Bible club and running his nonprofit, Genesis, which organized volunteer opportunities for students.
He wanted to apply to Harvard and other top schools, but could not afford the application fees.
His guidance counselor suggested he apply for six scholarships. He got all of them, but knew he needed more. He scanned hundreds of websites, poring through criteria. Many scholarships had narrowly defined qualifications that he didn't meet: "It was frustrating."
But many looked for top-notch academics combined with leadership and community service. Gray had all three.
"I had 600 volunteer hours," he said. "And because I started a nonprofit, that made me stand out."
Awards kept coming
Gray's biggest coup was the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which covers tuition and room and board from a bachelor's to a doctorate. A $20,000 scholarship from Coca-Cola followed, and fortuitously put him in touch with Bryson Alef, a rising senior at Amherst College, his other partner on the Scholly app. He also received a $20,000 Horatio Alger Scholarship and the $10,000 Axa Achievement Scholarship.
Smaller awards came from Wal-Mart and Lowe's. And they just kept coming.
"My mom was elated. I did a little jumping around," Gray said.
Gray, an entrepreneurship major at Drexel, has used the money for tuition, room and board, supplies at the Apple store, travel for interviews, clothing and other needs.
He has appeared at national conferences and in the media, including U.S. News & World Report. As a result, hundreds of students and parents have e-mailed and called for advice. Working with Mayor Michael Nutter's office on education, he has also advised students at Philadelphia public high schools.
"That's what inspired me to make the app," he said. "It was taking hours of my day trying to help. It just became too much."
High school, college students can use app
Gray has uploaded 500 scholarships on the app and continues to add more.
They are sorted by eight criteria: state, race, GPA, gender, need/merit, grade (high school or college), major and miscellaneous. Students can find suitable scholarships and create a spreadsheet.
Gray also has uploaded several of his winning scholarship essays.
The app is geared to high school and college students, who can qualify even though they are already in school, Gray said.
Now that he has graduated, Pirollo will continue working with Gray in addition to taking a job with Vistaprint, a business card company.
Gray, who has two years left at Drexel, wants to make it easier for his siblings than it was for him.
"I'm trying to save up to put them in a better environment," he said, aiming to get them into a private school by fifth grade.
As for his career plans, he has the goal of a true entrepreneur: "Ideally, not to have to get a job when I graduate."