Author’s note: The Velocity Accelerator Program is hosting five companies for its winter 2014 cohort. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll bring you profiles of these startups. This is the fourth in the series.
Derrius Quarles’ story is something you’d expect to read about on Upworthy. In fact, it was featured on ABC 7 news in Chicago. Then CNN and BET and Tedx and more.
A murdered father, nine years in the foster system on the South Side of Chicago, the temptation of crime and easy money.
Then the warm encouragement from a beloved teacher, the drive to achieve, and the breaking of barriers on the way to success.
Quarles was the first “Million Dollar Scholar.” He earned more than a million dollars in financial aid, scholarships and grants and attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, a historically black all-male college.
In May 2013, Quarles graduated and has now joined the Velocity accelerator program, hoping to turn “Million Dollar Scholar” into a business, then a social enterprise, and then maybe a paradigm shift for scholarship applications.
“Revolutionary,” says Quarles. “We really want be that.”
Million Dollar Scholar is an online platform to help high school and college students earn scholarships and avoid student debts.
“We have a grander vision from a social impact standpoint,” says Quarles. Million Dollar Scholar wants to use profits from this subscription service to fund scholarships that are sustained by the business and not dependent on philanthropy or a corporation.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Quarles started doing “inadvertent customer discovery” while performing college community service working with kids, many of whom were in the same position he was in a few years earlier.
Many times when Quarles was doing a workshop on scholarship application techniques and tips, people told him he could sell this material or charge for lessons.
“I’m not doing it to sell it,” he always told them
“Until I realized I could help a lot more people if I could scale it up,” he says.
Most schools are not preparing students for the financial aspect of college prep, says Quarles. “We intend to offer technology that can disrupt that.”
Private scholarship consultants make a minimum of $100 an hour, says Quarles, which makes them out of reach for students and families that need them most. Because Quarles is able to offer this program online, it allows Million Dollar Scholar to come in at a price point that is a good value (the company has yet to set a price for the program).
“The return on investment will be high,” he says.
But Million Dollar Scholar isn’t just targeting parents and students; Quarles is hoping to sell subscriptions to school systems and libraries and other organizations that will be able to pay for the service and then offer it to students who need it.
Students like Morehouse classmate, Ras Asan, who graduated steeped in debt. The Cleveland native is now Million Dollar Scholar’s chief operating officer.
The two came to Velocity and do not intend to return to Chicago. They’re not sure where they’ll headquarter Million Dollar Scholar, but they’re both “done” with Chicago, and they are enjoying their time in Louisville. They are the first long-term residents at Louisville’s Hacker Hostel in Portland.
“Velocity will be a stepping stone or a catapult,” Quarles says. “Through this comes a lot more opportunities.”
Upon graduation, Quarles expects Million Dollar Scholar to be just as competitive and compelling to investors as a business without a social model. When he decided to apply to accelerators, he employed the same research skills he used when applying for scholarships. Velocity and its emphasis on bringing businesses to profit seemed like a good fit.
“I turned med school down and don’t regret it at all,” he says. “I’m an entrepreneur from this time forth.”
The Million Dollar Scholar curriculum starts with helping to instill the student with the kind of confidence Quarles radiates.
“The approach they take to the process determines a great deal of what they get out of it,” he says.
The program helps students prepare their résumés, essays, short responses, federal student aid forms, and personal statements.
Quarles says Million Dollar Scholar is for “creating a competitive scholarship package.” The word “package” is important, he says. At some point they will offer services for specialized scholarships, like arts scholarships that call for a portfolio, for example.
Currently Million Dollar Scholar has around 20 hours of content and is aimed largely at high school juniors, but Quarles knows he can help students be even more successful if they start as early as freshman year.
Million Dollar Scholar participated in 5Across last November. They didn’t win, but they have won three other pitch contests so far.
“I never want to hear ‘I didn’t go to college because nobody helped me,'” says Quarles.