How I Fit an Online MBA Into My Life: A Navy Vet Success Story

man in a dress shirt sits at a desk and looks past his computer

“You’ll never amount to anything out there. If you leave, I promise you’ll be back.”

After 16 years in the service and two combat tours, it was Seaman Francisco Rivera’s last day in the Navy. He never forgot the sting of the words uttered by his Master Chief Petty Officer from the 32nd Street Naval Station pier that day in San Diego. That memory sustained him through long nights of study, countless exams, an undergraduate degree, an online MBA degree, and the hard-earned growth of several successful businesses. In fact, if you receive an email today from Francisco Rivera’s account at Wepa Commercial Cleaning, one of his companies, you’ll notice something telling. Below his contact information and the depiction of a muscular custodian holding a mop in one hand and an American flag in the other, there is a single line in quotes and italics: “The Greatest Revenge is Massive Success.”

The Path to Service

From the beginning, it was not an easy path for Rivera and the cards were stacked against his evolving into a massive success. Raised by a single mom, be bounced back and forth between the Bronx and Puerto Rico for the bulk of his childhood.

“My mom tried hard to get ahead,” recalls Rivera. “She worked folding laundry, cleaning houses, going to school to earn an associate degree. But we struggled and would travel to Puerto Rico to be with my aunt and cousins. There were twelve people in a two-room apartment. That was tough on my mom.”

His mother’s work ethic left an indelible mark on Rivera but during the time spent in New York, he admits that it was a wholly different influence that molded his ambition. “We lived in a rough neighborhood. My brothers and I heard gunshots every night. Lots of police, lots of ambulances. I watched the entrepreneurs in the neighborhood — dealers and pimps . I watched how they handled their business. There weren’t a lot of really positive influences there. But if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, right?”

Rivera’s mother recognized the danger and the dark paths her son could too easily take. She kept him constantly engaged with a revolving door of sports and baseball is where he excelled. However, he didn’t speak English and found himself building a wall against the disdain often directed at him from teammates. He had to work harder and dedicated the majority of his time to the sport. By his teens, things were looking up. Rivera had a new stepfather who became a steadying force in his life, teaching him responsibility and accountability. A natural athlete, Rivera earned his spot as a right fielder. He dreamt of playing in Yankee Stadium. A priest at his church helped translate Francisco’s talent into an opportunity, recommending the boy for a vacancy at All Hallows High School in the Bronx, an all-boys Catholic school.

a man and a woman talk in a meeting next to a desk

“Nobody told me it was an all-boys school,” he remembers. “It was a big change. I was considered too quiet and I was just too accustomed to stressful living. But it got me out of the terrible school I was in. I graduated MVP.  It helped me get a scholarship for baseball at Saint Thomas Aquinas College. All I had to do was pay the $750 entrance fee. I worked all summer to earn that. But I didn’t go. I wasn’t ready for college. I think I was scared I wasn’t going to make it.”

At the age of 17, out of high school, living at home and uncertain of his prospects, Francisco Rivera had some choices to make. His childhood in the Bronx had fostered in him a deep admiration for law enforcement. He strongly pondered becoming a New York City police officer. But it was a neighborhood friend, recently enlisted, who first mentioned the Navy. Rivera visited the recruiter and was ready to sign on.

But still only 17, he was going to need parental consent and his mother believed he was too young. She refused. Rivera was unrelenting and there were some heated discussions. It was his stepfather who finally settled the case.

“He’ll be 18 in a few months,” he stated. “Then he’ll go sign up anyways. What’s a few months?”

Francisco Rivera carried the signed consent form to the recruiter, enlisted into the United States Navy and, shortly after, shipped off to Illinois for boot camp. The structure and discipline were good for him. He grew and matured and made a career there. Rivera eventually did become a police officer, just of the military sort. Over the course of 16 years, he worked search and rescue, navigation, and ammunition. He was on leave in New York when the planes hit the towers. He made the supercarrier, USS Nimitz, home for a time and served two combat tours in Iraq. He earned two advanced warfare qualifications and ascended to the rank of E-3 Seaman. And it still wasn’t enough.

“I was tired,” explains Rivera. “I didn’t have any plan for what I was going to do. But I knew I wanted to try something different. I was just done.”

With very little idea of his next move, he abruptly left the service. He departed the pier in San Diego and closed the door on the only life he had known as a grown man.

The National University Solution

The discipline. structure and time management drilled into Rivera during his years in the U.S. Navy served him well as he weighed his options outside the military. Having served his nation admirably, he had many more opportunities than the young man who joined the Navy 16 years before. San Diego had been the Nimitz’s home port and Rivera found southern California’s balmy weather preferable to New York’s dreary winters; he made San Diego his new home. As a former military policeman, Rivera never lost his interest in law enforcement. He decided to attend classes at a local community college with the goal of pursuing a Criminal Justice degree. After all, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was available to pay tuition, school fees, books, supplies, and housing.

Starting on a new path, however, proved to be a big challenge. As do many servicemembers integrating back into civilian life, Francisco struggled. “The transition into civilian life was the worst,” he says. “It was really tough. I didn’t know how to relate. I couldn’t deal with smiling people. I didn’t understand why everyone was smiling when we had a war on. But I learned to adjust. I acclimated. I came out of community college with an associate degree then transferred to a four-year college.”

Not surprisingly, he found it difficult to relate to many of the professors and students there. Rivera’s age and life experiences simply set him apart from traditional college undergrads. It was around this time that a friend first mentioned National University, an institution with a history of being in tune with the educational needs of servicemembers and their families.

In fact, National University (NU) serves active-duty and Veteran students from all branches of the military. Founded in 1971 by retired U.S. Navy Captain David Chigos, NU is designed for the unique needs of servicemembers earning their college degrees whether at home, on base or abroad. As San Diego’s largest private nonprofit university, National University offers more than one hundred degree programs for military personnel and their dependents. As a military-friendly college and Yellow Ribbon school, NU accepts the Post-9/11 GI Bill, so Veteran and active-duty students pay virtually no out-of-pocket costs for their education. In addition, the Veteran Center provides guidance and support to help ease the transition from military to civilian life.

Rivera investigated and found the educational model to be very different than the other schools he had attended. At National, the class structure, comprising one-month classes, fit military students’ demanding duty schedules. National University also accepts and reviews applications year round, so he wouldn’t have to wait to apply. Rivera found that programs are offered online, on campus, and on more than a dozen military bases.

For Rivera, the university seemed to be built around the needs of busy working professionals like him. The professors had all worked in their fields of study and had first-hand practical experience to share. Perhaps even more importantly, the student body comprised people who, like Rivera, had served and shared backgrounds similar to his own. Rivera was ready to make a move; he promptly transferred to National University and enrolled in an accelerated program to complete his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. It took him a year-and-a-half.

Forging a New Path: The Online MBA at National

closeup of Francisco, standing inside with his arms crossed

Shortly before completing his degree, Rivera had a compelling opportunity. He learned the FBI was recruiting. With a criminal justice degree nearly completed, this was his chance to use his new credentials and begin the law enforcement career he had considered for so long. He applied for the Bureau’s Special Agent program and was invited to take the qualifying exam for the limited spots available. He took the test but in the end, Rivera was not selected. This disappointment closed the door on his dream of law enforcement, but the door that swung open next took Francisco Rivera in a wholly unexpected direction that would call on his natural entrepreneurial streak.

“I was heartbroken,” he admits. “I re-entered the Navy for a while in Maritime Civil Affairs, sort of an undercover military police officer. I began looking at different businesses. I invested in a nightclub and in the San Diego Flash soccer team. I began developing an understanding for business and for how companies make money.”

Rivera found he had a talent for running companies, but realized he needed to deepen and broaden his understanding of many of the fundamental principles within commercial enterprises — accounting, marketing, analysis, economics, and management. Busier than ever before, he turned again to National University, knowing the classes could adjust to his schedule. He learned NU offered an online Masters of Business Administration program.

Rivera was convinced. “I really liked that I could take classes at the campus or they have online degrees. National University understands the difference; they know you had to go to work then go to school at night. It was founded by Veterans for Veterans. So you’re not a number, not just tuition. While the standards are higher, the professors take their time and work with you. They make sure you understand the principles and even give out their phone numbers. They would never happen at the other schools I went to. National University cares about you after graduation.”

Rivera thrived in National University’s online MBA program. He challenged professors. He studied marketing, business ethics, statistics, law, and a host of other core business fundamentals. Rivera learned to build a business plan and a marketing plan, and how to hire and manage employees. He used the discipline acquired in the military to complete an MBA with a specialization in social media and mobile marketing within two years.

He credits NU’s online MBA with making him a true businessman. Rivera’s entrepreneurial streak has paid off well. Among his first ventures was buying into a janitorial and cleaning franchise. The skills he learned helped him identify inefficiencies in the business model. He found cheaper sources for cleaning supplies. He aggressively pursued new accounts. He looked for every opportunity to reduce overhead and maximize revenues.

“The franchiser eventually offered to buy me out,” recalls Rivera. “They were charging thousands for leads and I was going after my own accounts. I was selling supplies to other franchises. They were taking about half my money. They said that I was exceeding their expectations for a franchise.”

Using the marketing tactics learned at National University, Rivera launched Wepa Commercial Cleaning. As a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), Wepa was able to bid on choice government contracts many of his competitors could not. In a few short years, Rivera had nearly quadrupled the enterprise’s revenues. His pride is evident; he uses the hashtag, #TheOnlyJanitorWithAnMBA on his social channels.

In turn, that success has permitted Rivera to explore other cutting-edge business ventures. Investing an a DJI Inspire 2 imaging drone, he founded Wepa Marketing. He’s used the drone to film and photograph properties for real estate clients. Recently, Wepa has made inroads with California’s agriculture industry, impacted by years of drought. With the right thermal cameras, the drone can detect where water and fertilizers are needed and Rivera can charge up to $3 an acre. The use of commercial drones is in its infancy. Rivera, true to form, identified a growth industry and is building the business while his cleaning operation continues to thrive.

Rivera offers advice to anyone looking to get ahead, “Remember that just because you’re working does not mean you’re progressing. So have a goal. Create it then write it down. You just have to stick with it.”

The Greatest Revenge is Massive Success

This once-Seaman has done well for himself, but not by accident. Rivera took the lessons of his childhood in the Bronx and translated them into professional success. He took the rigors of spending half his life in the military and converted them into a valuable education. His life path hasn’t always gone according to plan, but Rivera has rarely missed an opportunity. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t expected to amount to anything out of the Navy.

When Francisco Rivera recalls that day on the pier and the cutting words of his Chief, he sometimes soothes the memory with another one. A few years ago, he told his mother that he was to receive a commendation and he invited her to attend the ceremony. What mother wouldn’t be bursting with pride? He even rented a limousine for the occasion.

When they pulled up to the auditorium entrance, Rivera helped his mother from the car and guided her to the back of the vehicle, where he popped the trunk to remove some clothing that would be utterly incongruous with a military award ceremony. Wafting from a hanger in the breeze, Francisco held a graduation gown. With his busy schedule, he had neglected, somehow, to share with his mother that he was pursuing an MBA from National University. Momentarily confused, she wept as it slowly dawned on her — this was her son’s graduation day.

About the MBA Program at National University

A leader in online business schools, National University offers a flexible, online Master of Business Administration (MBA) program featuring a cutting-edge curriculum. The program is designed to impart the conceptual understanding and application of problem-solving tools contained in basic business disciplines, including accounting, economics, data analysis, finance, management, leadership, and marketing.

The National University experience provides learners with the opportunity to acquire knowledge, develop skills, improve job performance, advance careers and prepare for leadership positions in a constantly changing business environment. Students learn to function effectively in global business through interactions with experts and colleagues who bring personal experience and practical wisdom into the classroom. Relevant and meaningful discussions online and onsite add value to each individual’s learning and ability to use technology effectively. Combining foundational business theory with practical business know-how, National University prepares tomorrow’s business leaders and innovative professionals for future jobs waiting to be created. You can learn more and request additional information on our MBA program page.

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