Companies angling for celebrities to endorse their products is an age-old practice that can feel just as played out. There are those moments, however, when the two sides align in such a way that fortifies both platforms and achieves that buzzword white whale: authenticity.
So goes the newfound partnership between Scholly founder and CEO Christopher Gray and actor Jesse Williams. Scholly, a website and app designed to streamline and unify the often confounding and fragmented world of higher-education scholarships, was first put through its paces last year when Gray, still a college student himself, pitched his company on Shark Tank. Since then, Scholly has been the gateway to more than $50 million in scholarship money–and now they’re poised to amplify their message and user base with the help of Williams.
Earlier this year at TED in Vancouver, Gray and Williams randomly ran into each other and struck up a conversation. Fast forward a few months later to Oprah’s SuperSoul 100 luncheon and, as fate would have it, Gray and Williams were seated next to each other.
“We hit it off on a number of levels, both having gone to college in Philadelphia and focusing a lot of our work and energy around education and education access,” Williams says. “One thing led to another and they asked me to come on board [as a board member and brand ambassador].”
Williams spent six years as a public school teacher in Philadelphia before segueing into acting, but that passion to lift up the disenfranchised never left him–it’s only manifested in his ongoing work as an activist. This year’s BET Awards served as a flashpoint to the work Williams has been doing when he delivered his now iconic acceptance speech for the humanitarian award that so poignantly encapsulated the struggle of so many minorities.
“We know he has a following that hits the demographic of our audience,” Gray says. “We knew when we launched this campaign that we could drive more awareness to get more users at an accelerated rate.”
Williams’s roles within Scholly go well beyond a cosmetic endorsement. He’s sounding the alarm for Scholly on his platforms while simultaneously bringing his perspective on inclusion.
“It’s not a hands-off thing,” says Gray. “One of our parameters [on Scholly] is male or female and we talked about [including] ‘other.’ It’s looking at things to make sure our brand is aligned with the 21st century.”
“It’s really steering the vision for the brand,” Williams says. “Where can we go? Is there new ground, new territory we can tackle? Are we going to allow students to use money here to go to school in Scotland or Nigeria? How else can we help people without losing our focus? I needed financial aid to go to high school–do we want to talk about going beyond undergrad and graduate school?”
Williams is aiming to adjust the lens through which students see opportunities and, as part of the larger fight, how the government sees education reform.
“We have an entire population of students that are pushed out of schools because they don’t have the proper assembly of green paper. It’s all luck of the draw with how much money their parents happen to have or how many resources they happen to have been born into because of their zip code and their life circumstances–all of these things that are, by and large, out of their hands decide their fate. That’s not only unfair, it’s trivial and random,” Williams says. “It is clearly a deep and serious and complex problem, and Scholly doesn’t claim to be able to solve [it]. But as long as there’s a very clear and measurable obstacle that’s going to stop our children from being able to continue their education and stay in school, Scholly has figured out a great workaround that uses money that already exists. It’s a terrific product and I want to help bring that directly to people.”
The relationship between Williams and Scholly was organic to start and authentic to fruition–which has become something of a guiding light for Williams as he continues to use his acting career and celebrity to build more than just a reel. In addition to acting, activism, and now Scholly, Williams is continuing to build out an app he and his wife, Aryn Drake-Lee Williams, co-launched in January called Ebroji, a curated GIF keyboard using popular memes and expressions in the black community.
“What we realized was in the cultural language space, everything was being ghettoized in the way that we speak, but then went very quickly back into the American vernacular. So there was this delay that separates us from our own language until it’s verified and validated by popular culture, and then sold back to us with corporate commercials telling us things are ‘on fleek’ and ‘blinged out’–but we were ghetto for saying it in the first place?” Williams says. “We thought it would be a fun project to do but also a way not to shy away from our own language. It doesn’t need to just be ‘LOL’ and cat videos. It can be shade. It can be tea. It can be ‘come on, son.’ We don’t have to clean it up and sterilize it for the masses. People like the way we talk. They pretend that they don’t but they do like the way we talk. And we like the way we talk, more importantly.”
At the forefront of Williams’s mind is the necessity to stay true to what he does–and luckily for everyone, he does so much.
“I’m a polymath. I do many things and I do them because they mean a lot to me and because I enjoy them and because I think they have value. I’m an artist. I’m a creative. I’m a writer/producer/director/actor. I want to continue to make art and bounce off into other forms of visual and creative and intellectual expression. I’m also a reflection of communities that bore me and want to continue to make those communities sustainable, livable, and if we’re lucky it gives people who are from there a chance to survive,” Williams says. “There’s not a particular goal, title, or tier that I’m targeting. I’m just trying to live a productive and constructive life. Years ago, I was not in the space of entertainment. I was an educator trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life. I was going to go to law school and be a civil rights attorney, which I very well might do. But right now this is where I am and I’ve been given this megaphone. It doesn’t define me or put me on a particular track. I’m just out here trying to be of service and be happy and be creative. What I don’t want to do is atrophy. I don’t want to get bored.”