Army veteran leverages small business support services at FIU to scale automotive equipment distribution startup

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Army veteran and FIU alumnus Charles Masters Rodriguez MBA '23. Photo by Eric Campbell.

The opportunities for a veteran’s next career are endless, because many skills gained during service – organization, communication, teamwork, punctuality – are transferable to every type of job. At FIU, veterans have a wealth of resources available to help them explore how these traits translate to their 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 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; but Masters leveraged the 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 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.

Masters took full advantage of the resources at FIU that help students build their careers. 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 FIU College of Business, whose experts offer confidential, 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 a $10,000 stipend to expand MK3, as well as a grant that helped secure warehouse space in nearby Doral, signaling the launch of phase II of MK3.

So 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, jetting off to Hanover for the Tuck Executive Education cohort at Dartmouth University one week and San Francisco for The Military Veteran startup conference the next. Adding to an already well-rounded resume, he was recently selected as the 2024 Bunker Labs ambassador for Miami.

He also believes it is important to give back to the veteran community, working with such organizations 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. But when I started experiencing life more, I realized it’s part of my identity. That’s who I am," Masters said.

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.

“Get connected with the VMA,” Masters advises. “They do a great job helping you out, whether it’s [vocational] rehab, answering your questions, anything you need.”

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.