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Army veteran leverages FIU small business services to scale auto equipment startup
Army veteran and FIU Business alumnus Charles Masters Rodriguez MBA '23. Photo by Eric Campbell.

Army veteran leverages FIU small business services to scale auto equipment startup

April 5, 2024 at 1:40pm

The opportunities for a veteran’s next career are endless, because many skills gained during service – organization, communication, teamwork – are transferable to every type of job. At FIU, veterans have a wealth of resources available to help them explore future goals while they earn their degrees.

Army veteran and Puerto Rico native Charles Masters Rodriguez MBA ’23 possessed an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. In grade school, he sold makeshift rubber band shooters fashioned out of Popsicle sticks, earning a couple hundred bucks between classes before his teachers caught wind and forbade it.

But upon graduating high school, he knew it was his destiny to follow in his family's footsteps and join the military, so ambitions of one day owning a business would have to wait.

“Going all the way back to U.S. Civil War times, my family has been in the military. And I wanted to serve to give back and do something with my life,” Masters said.

After attending the United States Military Academy at West Point and earning a bachelor’s in engineering management, Masters served five years as a dive officer stationed in Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, conducting underwater reconnaissance, demolition and salvage missions in the Pacific.

His transition to civilian life in 2019 coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He leveraged the ensuing nationwide shift to e-commerce to launch his first venture, MK3 Industries, online. He initially sold PPE, but soon pivoted to automotive parts and fleet maintenance equipment.

“The biggest things I learned in the military that translate really well into business are leadership and resilience. The military is great because you’re always getting put into positions where you’re forced to learn... and launching a business is a constant learning process," Masters said. Equally important, he said, is the ability to work with others, regardless of background or differences, to achieve a common goal.

Masters made his way to his current locale, Miami, in 2021. MK3 was beginning to flourish online, but he was eager to learn the skills necessary to scale up, so he applied to FIU’s MBA flex program.

At the FIU College of Business, Masters learned to employ the soft skills he gained in the Army and harness that entrepreneurial predisposition. But he didn’t stop there. He participated in StartUP FIU and StartUP FIU Local, entrepreneurial incubator programs, to hone the big picture in his mind into a strategic business model ripe for growth.

“These were amazing assets... especially for a bootstrapped venture like mine. They really provide you all the tools and knowledge to be successful and to miss the pitfalls of being a new business owner,” Masters said.

He also utilized the Florida Small Business Development Center, a statewide initiative embedded in the College of Business, whose experts offer no-cost consultation to entrepreneurs and business owners.

Shortly before graduating, Masters won a pitch competition at the 2023 Veterans Florida Expo that earned him $10,000 to expand MK3, as well as a grant that helped secure warehouse space in nearby Doral, signaling the launch of phase II of MK3.

Nowadays, he can be found taking inventory, packing orders and making room for new stock well into the evening at his first brick-and-mortar location.

“If you’re looking for a family and community that will support you being a veteran, but also your passions and goals beyond that, whether it’s going into business or computer science or whatever you choose, FIU is a great option all around,” Masters said. “And it definitely helps to be in lovely Miami!”

Masters’ thirst for learning – and an apparent sense of wanderlust – keeps him plenty busy outside of the warehouse, too. He spent time recently participating in Tuck Executive Education at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, followed by a startup conference for military veterans. And he was recently selected as an ambassador for Miami’s Bunker Labs, an entrepreneurship hub catering to vets and their spouses.

And he gives back to the veteran community b working with organizations such as Veterans Florida and the Veterans Entrepreneurship Initiative.

“When I got out, I didn’t stay in touch with that veteran tribe as much as I should have," Masters said. “But when I started experiencing life more, I realized it’s part of my identity. That’s who I am."

As an alumnus, Masters remains active at FIU through the Office of Veteran & Military Affairs, a program that facilitates veteran and military-affiliated students’ academic and professional achievements through wraparound support services, assistance with accessing education benefits, success coaching and more.

With the skills and knowledge gained at FIU, MK3 Industries continues to grow. Masters looks forward to hiring his first full-time employees this year and showcasing his newest automotive tech startup at eMerge Americas in April.