Building Your Career: UCI & You

Past Tides
February 24, 2017 By Hai Truong

On January 23rd, the UCI Alumni Association, Paul Merage School of Business, and Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship held a panel at the Cove discussing “Creating Change Inside and Outside the Organization.” Panelists included UCI alumni Gina Heitkamp, M.B.A., Jermaine Griggs, and Neil Sahota, M.B.A. Each shared how they successfully became agents for change and growth in the world of entrepreneurship. Barney Ellis-Perry,
assistant vice chancellor, Alumni Relations and CEO, UCI Alumni Association, served as moderator for the evening.

Ellis-Perry began the panel by asking each panelist on how networking played a role in their career development. Sahota, who serves as Worldwide Business Development Leader and Master for IBM Watson Group, shared that he worked at previous companies before moving over to IBM. “Don’t network when you want something, network when you want to meet people, so they are ready to help you without you having to ask,” said Sahota. He credited building genuine relationships and following up with people long before working with them as a driving factor in his professional development. Heitkamp, co-founder of Middle School Moguls, shared a story of approaching one of the main speakers at a licensing expo after his presentation. This fateful interaction eventually resulted in the speaker, who was Head of Development at Dreamworks, becoming a part of the Middle School Moguls team. Griggs, founder, and president of Hear and Play Music credited his professor, one of the founders of, as a key mentor who encouraged him to pursue his passion. The result of that encouragement being a multi-million dollar lifestyle business that Griggs has been building and running since college.

Sahota provided a final thought on networking and the concept of intrapreneurship with an anecdote about Kodak. An industry titan for a century, Kodak also had digital camera technology 20 years before everyone else in the 1970s. However, the creator of the technology at Kodak was unable to persuade leadership to move forward. Sahota encouraged attendees who may not want to start their own business also to recognize the value of being an intrapreneur, bringing great ideas to the company you work for and executing innovation from within.

The panel then discussed the importance of remaining flexible in your career and pivoting when necessary. Heitkamp shared an example early in the startup phase where a large company launched a competing product shortly after its successful Kickstarter campaign. Having to pivot from their original plan, Heitkamp understood after reflection that it was a boon for their startup to have a large company go first into their market–allowing them to see what went right and how they could differentiate themselves. On the development of Watson at IBM, Sahota credited a fail-fast approach to innovation so his team could learn quickly and adjust based on new information. Griggs shared a bootstrapped business perspective to pivoting. Having never taken a loan or received investor money, Griggs had to adapt quickly amidst plummeting sales in 2008, resulting in a pivot toward a digital subscription model where the company had previously sold physical DVDs and tapes.

On how UCI played a role, Heitkamp shared the numerous UCI resources she and her startup accessed: the ANTrepreneur Center, the Paul Merage School of Business’ Business Plan Competition, and the Cove. Heitkamp credited UCI as for her startup. Griggs shared that the idea for his business started in the dorms as a freshman at UCI. After seeing the return from one of his paid ads, he understood what he needed to do next with the support and encouragement of his roommates and professor. Griggs shared that the five roommates he started the business with are still working with him to this day. Sahota shared that he started out as a political science major, and realized after volunteering in the field that he wanted a change. He credited his mentors at UCI who helped him pivot his career toward working with startups and technology.

The panel ended with a Q&A and some final words from panelists, who unanimously agreed that fear should not be the deciding factor in pursuing something. Sahota encouraged attendees to think, “how will I make this work?” instead of “why won’t it work.” Heitkamp shared, “UCI has many resources, but it can be scary to share that you need help. However, if you do not share, you will not grow.” Griggs challenged attendees to think clearly about their passions. “If someone can talk you out of your idea, then your belief is not strong enough. If someone tells you no, are you willing to stand up and make a case for it?”