The question 2017 grads should ask themselves: What if?

Entrepreneur and Social Ecology grad Jermaine Griggs '05 to speak at commencement

What if?

What if you could launch a business? What if you could get a perfect score on the grad school entrance exam? What if you could run for political office?

“What if?”

Jermaine Griggs, 2005 Social Ecology graduate, asks that question every day. And he’s become a business owner, a first-generation college grad, a law school applicant, and someday, he hopes, a public leader. When he gives his commencement speech June 16, he’ll expound on those lessons for roughly 1,200 graduating Social Ecology students.

“Where you sit today is a result of what you’ve done the last four to five years. But if you want to change the next four to five years, it starts today,” Griggs says. “For some of you, it’s more education. For many of you, it’s hitting the work force. For others, it’s starting companies.”

“We all have this unlimited potential. It’s only when we stop striving that we tend not to reach it,” Griggs says.

That mentality of always striving started early for Griggs, who grew up in a rough neighborhood in Long Beach with his mom and sister.

“We had a lot of love and pride. Unfortunately, we also had a lot of poverty, which gave me this burning desire to be this wonder kid,” Griggs says. “I didn’t want the options that were seemingly given to me from my surroundings and the place I grew up.”

At 12 years old, Jermaine Griggs was selling Avon products door to door, and he jokes that he was the youngest “Avon Lady” in California. In 7th grade, arguing and winning a state-wide mock trial competition in front of a real judge, opened his eyes to his knack for public speaking. Eventually, he was elected president of his high school class – every year. And as student body president, he was named the graduation speaker his senior year.

Along the way, he asked himself his characteristic question: “What if?”

“What if I could do that? Is that thing only reserved for certain people, for a certain category, for a certain background?” Griggs says. “Me coming from the ‘hood,’ I never thought I could be a mock trial or debate champion, or the president of the school.”

At 16, when he was at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, he started “Hear and Play Music” to teach piano by ear, rather than by using sheet music. It was something he had been doing as a church musician since he was just 9 years old. Initially he had just eight students, and he taught them how the notes were arranged in scales and chords, and how chords were patterned. The method fit perfectly for the charismatic churches, where songs weren’t always so pre-planned.

Someone suggested he put the lessons online, so he bought the domain name in August 2000 for $70 and launched. For a few months, he promoted the lessons around bulletin boards for music groups, and soon had his first sale. While still in high school, he was making a couple hundred dollars per month.

He applied to several universities, and ultimately enrolled in Irvine to study criminology, law and society, believing he could be the next big attorney. Though invited to college parties and fraternities, he lasered in on his studies and his fledgling business. At the beginning of March, during his freshmen year, he re-launched the “Hear and Play” website with all that he’d learn from an internet marketing course, and sales shot up from five to six per month to, eventually, five to 10 per day. His income soared.

“Here I was in my freshmen dorm with a six-figure personal income,” Griggs says. Soon he had his own apartment and car. “It was like the American Dream.”

The moment of fortune was also his biggest test. He could drop out of college, and focus solely on building his business, like other Internet titans. Or he could stay, and attempt both simultaneously. He stayed. He’d made a commitment to his grandmother that life isn’t just about money – and he wanted to be a father who had a college degree.

Since graduating, he has expanded his business, and launched into other endeavors, such as a daily 20-minute inspirational Facebook video with over 164,000 followers. Now, he’s circling back to his first dream and applying to law school to pursue a career in politics.

College, Griggs says, is what you make of it. Viewing it only as a means to an end – a way to obtain a degree – results in an unfulfilling experience. The time is really opportunity to expand your mind and challenge yourself.

“When you have knowledge, it can’t be taken away from you,” Griggs says. Changing your mind during college and after is ok, too. “Keep your eyes and ears open, because you may go for one thing, but you may be fascinated by this completely different thing.”

Carry that learning mindset with you into adult life. But as you become more successful, never lose sight of your own humanity. “Stay humble and be cognizant of how you make the people around you feel,” Griggs says.

And circle back to those activities during childhood that sparked your fire. “I believe a disconnection happens between childhood and adulthood, and we end up doing some things that are not fulfilling,” Griggs says.

Return to those dreams. Dwell on them. Pursue them now and in years to come.

Because: “What if?”

-May 23, 2017