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A high school vocational test nearly derailed this entrepreneur, until he landed at Gaston College

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Before graduating from Gaston College, before being called the “Startup Hero” by North Carolina Business Magazine, and before writing 10 books, Chris Elmore was a guy who spent his school days labeled a bad student. Teachers frequently told Elmore’s parents that he was witty and had a lot of friends but that he just wouldn’t focus and do the work.

In 1982, Elmore was a high school freshman staring down the results of a vocational test he’d just taken. They disappointed him.

Elmore had dreams of going to college and starting his own business, but when the battery of tests meant to guide his career path said otherwise, Elmore was crushed. 

“I took this test and it comes back and…it says do not go to college – you will not be successful,” Elmore said.

The vocational assessment generated three alternatives to his dreams: retail sales, auto mechanic, and police officer. Although Elmore found all three to be respectable career fields, he never saw himself doing any of those things. 

At 18, Elmore had already spent 67% of his life in what he called an environment that accidentally told him he was a failure.

“I mean accidentally because they were good-hearted people that had taught me for years,” he said.

But it wasn’t just high school where Elmore felt defeat. Months after taking the SAT, he received rejection letters from colleges.

“Part of the [SAT] was where do you want to go to college? I thought they were just asking me…I didn’t know that they actually sent the scores to the institutions,” Elmore said. “So I started getting all these rejection letters without even applying.”

It was then Elmore said he was done.

“I don’t want to see another school. I don’t want to see another textbook. I definitely don’t want to take another test ever again for the rest of my life,” he said.

So Elmore packed his things and moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C. to start a speed metal band. When the band didn’t take off and all his bandmates moved back home, Elmore found himself alone and at his lowest. That’s about the time he received a call from his dad encouraging him to think about college.

“I said ‘No way. That’s stupid. It’s so stupid,'” he said.

Elmore’s remarks didn’t deter his dad from sending him a catalog from Gaston College. As he flipped through the pages, all Elmore could think was this is fantastic.

“I just thought the classes were interesting, and I wasn’t doing anything else with my life,” he said.

The application fee at the time was $75. That was more than his entire net worth. But after pulling together his and his roommate’s change, Elmore finally had enough to apply. He ripped out the paper application in the middle of the catalog, filled it out, and mailed it to the college – and then he forgot about it.

“I went on with my life. But then I get this letter back that said I’ve been accepted, and at the moment, that thing was so important to me because I had never had a space for me and education – ever.”

— Chris Elmore

Going to college

All 58 North Carolina community colleges are open door institutions – which means state law requires colleges to admit all students who are high school graduates or beyond the age limit of the public school system.

That was a win for Elmore.

“They had to take me, but I didn’t care about that because I still saw that as a victory. When you are an 18-year-old kid and you have never had an educational victory, that [acceptance] letter just meant everything.”

— Chris Elmore
Chris Elmore’s acceptance letter from Gaston College. Courtesy of Elmore

When it was time for Elmore to attend, he knew he would have to start with remedial classes. What he didn’t know was the hurdle he would encounter during his first week of college.

On his first day of reading class, Elmore took an entrance test. It was a test the instructor used to gauge students’ reading levels and to help students identify their class goals.

“I liked that because the thought was, let me see where I am now and let me see where I can go,” Elmore said.

By the second class, the instructor met with each student individually to discuss the results. When it came time for Elmore to speak with the instructor, he was the only one left in the room. Elmore said he knew something was wrong. His test showed he was reading on a fourth grade level.

“I was so humiliated…[The instructor] looks at me and says, ‘I’ve never had anyone go more than two grade levels in this class. So hopefully we can get you to a seventh grade.’ But I remember looking at that piece of paper, and I said to myself, ‘ Well, I guess I’m going to be the first person that will graduate from college reading on a seventh grade level.'”

— Chris Elmore

Elmore said the day he got his test results back was the day he graduated college.

“In any level of success, you’ve got to determine that you’re going to do this no matter what…I was determined. The best thing I ever learned at Gaston College was grit.”

— Chris Elmore

Elmore used that grit to push through his remedial classes, eventually earning an associate in arts from Gaston College before transferring to UNC Charlotte.

It was during his time at UNC Charlotte that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. That law allowed Elmore to get the resources he needed to be successful in college. It also helped him identify why he struggled with reading.

“The whole thing about the fourth grade reading level was I had dyslexia. I didn’t know it. My parents did not know. They knew something was wrong, but they couldn’t put their finger on it.

— Chris Elmore

After earning a bachelor’s degree from UNC Charlotte, Elmore spent the next several years chasing his entrepreneurial spirit – eventually starting his own company, Elmore said he put all the grit and tenacity he learned from Gaston College into cold calling. Within a year and half, Elmore made over 5,000 cold calls, something he says changed his life because it helped him learn how to capture a person’s interest in about two seconds. eventually merged with – a technology career enhancement and recruiting site co-founded by Michael Praeger.

In 2000, Praeger co-founded the company AvidXchange, bringing along Elmore as one of the company’s first employees. Elmore said AvidXchange is the ninth largest fintech company in the country with more than 1,500 employees, 7,000+ customers, and over 700,000 suppliers nationwide. The company went public in October 2021 and is traded on the NASDAQ exchange.

Student impact

A recent economic impact study of all 58 community colleges in North Carolina evaluated a number of areas, including student return on investment (ROI). In 2019-20, students paid $9.8 million to cover the cost of tuition, fees, and supplies at Gaston College. In return for their investment, students are expected to receive $226.1 million in increased earnings throughout their working lives. According to the study, “This translates to a return of $5.10 in higher future earnings for every dollar students invest in their education.”

The ROI for Elmore was more than just financial. When Elmore decided to attend Gaston College in the late ’80’s, he had no idea where his life would take him. But the moment he was accepted was significant and changed his life’s trajectory.

“I needed a win. And I got a win.”

— Chris Elmore

In addition to his day job, Elmore serves on the board of four startups and is a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at UNC Charlotte.

He also never gave up his dream of being a musician. Throughout the year, Elmore can be found playing in a band named Ukulele Hairband – a band that, “combines the power of the ukulele and metal from the 80s.”

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.