Daymond John imparts wisdom to ‘future sharks’ during Fall Convocation address

John delivered the Fall Convocation address on Friday, Sept. 29 at the Schar Center.

During his Fall Convocation address Friday, Daymond John promised the audience in Schar Center they would hear about two things – his story of growing up in the Hollis neighborhood in Queens, New York, with no money, little education and dyslexia but a passion to be involved in the hip-hop movement that led to the creation of one of the most popular fashion brands ever; and his tips on how to think and act like a shark. And during an impassioned and entertaining talk that stretched more than an hour, he delivered on that promise.

With his DJ providing various musical cues and photos from throughout his life, John gave the hundreds in attendance at Schar Center a vulnerable glimpse into his life starting the global lifestyle brand FUBU, being a part of the hit ABC show “Shark Tank,” and his personal setbacks and eventual triumphs. Fall Convocation kicked off Family Weekend 2023 and was the second event of the Elon University Speaker Series, which this year is focused on “Creating Together.”

John delivering the Fall Convocation address during Family Weekend on Friday, Sept. 29 at 3:30 p.m. in the Schar Center.

He started detailing his upbringing with the iconic song “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye reverberating through the arena. The son of an African American mother and Trinidadian father, his love for style and clothing was visible in the childhood photos on display on Schar Center’s video screens. He spoke about how his formative years were quite normal.

“Until all of a sudden, life happened,” John said. “My parents got a divorce. I would never see or speak to my father ever again after my 10th birthday. I became the man in the house.”

His mother picked up three jobs to help make ends meet, but after seeing his mother at her lowest point, John went out and got a job handing out flyers for a shopping mall. He would come home and put what he’d earned in a cookie jar and his mother would tell him something that he didn’t recognize the depth of until much later in life.

John smiling on stage during his Fall Convocation address.

“My mother would say something to me so profound that I didn’t understand the value of it until maybe 20 years ago,” John recalled. “She said, ‘Son, you understand something that most people don’t understand. Responsibility is something that must be taken, it can’t be given. And as long as you understand that, you will be successful.'”

Success was never equated to money, John said. Instead, it was about having a good set of morals, believing in what your goals are and finding a passion.

John said he found his passion in the late 1980s through hip-hop culture. Growing up, his mother had exposed him to the arts and he had seen great artists like David Bowie, Tina Turner and The Commodores. But in 1986 at the Spectrum Center in Philadelphia, John saw a group of artists on stage — Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Whodini — who talked, walked and sounded like him and commanded the same respect as those iconic acts of the previous generations.

And in the crowd, John noticed that seemingly all of the 18,000 spectators were outfitted in Levi’s jeans, Kangol hats, Cazal glasses and Adidas shell top shoes.

“That was the exact moment my life turned from black and white to Technicolor,” John said.

It was then that he got to the first of his S.H.A.R.K. points — Set a goal. That goal was to create an outfit for hip-hop. On Good Friday 1989, John stood outside the mall where he worked and sold 80 hats that his mother taught him how to sow. From there the journey of FUBU began.

But next, John had to do his homework, the “H” in the S.H.A.R.K. points. Through some guileful methods, John and his FUBU business partners made their way to a prominent Las Vegas convention where he made $300,000 in sales. But on the plane ride home, the gravity of the fact he didn’t have a way to make all of those clothes hit him. Eventually, through some tough decisions that included his mother taking out a loan on their house and turning that house into a makeshift factory, John landed a partnership with Samsung that catapulted the company to success beyond his wildest dreams.

“How did I get to that point in my life?” John said. “The only thing that every single successful person has in common is my third point, ‘amor’ … to love what you do.”

John reminded those in attendance to remember they are a brand, the fourth point of his S.H.A.R.K. acronym. With the age of social media, John said it would behoove everyone to portray themselves in the best possible light. Everything in life is a pitch, John said, and it’s paramount to nail that pitch whether standing on the set of “Shark Tank” or standing in front of a friend.

John’s last point was to keep swimming. Through every setback, accomplishment, derailment or propulsion, you have to keep swimming.

Audience members applaud John’s Fall Convocation address during Family Weekend.

John’s Fall Convocation address was a part of the 2023-24 Elon University Speaker Series. He was the second to be featured in the Speaker Series. Upcoming speakers and more information about this year’s lineup can be found on the Elon University Speaker Series webpage.

While on campus, John heard pitches from entrepreneurial students in the Love School of Business and gave feedback on their respective business ventures.

Jon Seaton ’24 introduced John and Bri Brabham ’24 sang the National Anthem. Prior to John’s address, President Connie Ledoux Book addressed the Elon community in attendance about the significance of the Fall Convocation.

“At Elon, we treasure gathering and learning together through a shared experience. And one of our closely held traditions is this Elon fall gathering,” Book said. “We are dedicated to creating an environment of interdisciplinary collaboration and experiential learning designed to empower our students, faculty and staff to address the world’s most pressing challenges.”