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From Arborist to Entrepreneur: How the Jenkins MBA helped one man cultivate an innovative new career

This post was written by Hugh Fisher, second-year Jenkins MBA student and originally published on the NC State Poole College of Management website.

Rafael Estevez’s career started not in an office cubicle or board room, but working with trees.

Trained as an arborist, Estevez in 2011 began working in operations at Progress Energy (which later merged with Duke Energy), after being on board there as a contractor for about a year.

Three years later, his managers saw Estevez’s potential for growth and moved him to a new role in corporate governance.

“For me, it’s been a life-changing experience,” Estevez said. “Throughout my career, I’ve taken more of a technical path – forestry, then being promoted and moving up the corporate ladder.”

“But, at the same time, coming in with my technical skills, I didn’t always understand the business perspective,” Estevez said.

He had already given some thought to going back to school, and had paved the way by taking some night courses. Then, going into 2014, Rafael Estevez applied to the NC State Jenkins MBA program.

What drew him to NC State, Estevez said, was the opportunity to focus on technology as well as innovation with his MBA studies.

“The Jenkins MBA offered the HiTEC Concentration, which focuses on new technologies that have commercial potential,” he said. “I liked the thought of an opportunity to work on emerging technologies and innovations – to look at the latest and greatest,” he said.

“I didn’t want to get just an MBA degree, I wanted to immerse myself in this experience,” Estevez said. “I wanted to get the basic MBA skill set, the strategy, marketing and supply chain knowledge, but I also wanted to gain experience in technology, and go above and beyond.”

Now, as Estevez looks ahead to graduation, he’s already reaping the benefits of that experience. “I’ve benefitted a lot from the cross-functional team experience, whether it’s engineering, marketing or supply chain,” he said. “I’ve been able to integrate myself with professionals in different areas, applying our collective experience to get things done.”

“The world is becoming more complex, and to solve problems you have to be able to work together,” Estevez said. “The Jenkins MBA does an excellent job of putting you into a team setting and encouraging you to produce a high-quality product.”

The program’s emphasis on career development and networking has also benefitted Estevez and his classmates. “You’re working with real people, real products and potential customers,” he said.

The Jenkins MBA program’s peer mentoring program and the Career Management Center’s programs gave Estevez valuable preparation for the professional world.

“The people you meet through the program are experts in their fields, and some of them are investors who may invest in your startup one day. It gives you an opportunity to build your network and also to have an impact in a field.”

The Jenkins MBA program also had a positive impact on Estevez personally. “Being in this program helped me understand myself and my goals,” he said. “I had been very successful throughout my career and I’ve accomplished great things, but I hadn’t always been purposeful. Now, I’m able to think more strategically, both long-term and short-term.”

Elements of the Jenkins MBA experience that emphasize leadership development and managerial style have helped him identify his strengths, Estevez said. “And I have a clearer idea not just of my strengths, but what my overall career can look like and how I can shape it. And that was a big awakening for me.”

Today, Estevez is channeling knowledge he’s gained not only into a career in the energy industry, but into a startup he co-founded with Jordan Moering, a graduate student in the College of Engineering’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and a colleague in the Jenkins MBA HiTEC concentration.

The startup, WarpSpec, Inc. grew from technology that Moering and Estevez evaluated in class in fall 2014. “We saw a lot of potential and after we completed the class, we decided to continue on,” Estevez said.

WarpSpec’s focus is on developing a broadband optical filter for potential use in Department of Defense, scientific or medical applications.

“Right now, we’re in technical development. We’re going to continue to develop the technology and get closer to a final product,” Estevez said. “It’s going to be a several-year process, but it’s exciting.”

Estevez and Moering also are now mentoring a team of MBA students through the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic, part of Poole College’s entrepreneurship program based in HQ Raleigh, a shared environment for entrepreneurs in downtown Raleigh. They were meeting with Jenkins MBA students David Garcia, Harshvardhan Purohit and Stephen Krunich in early February.

If Rafael Estevez could go back in time a few years and tell his past self, the arborist, about these new developments, would he have believed it?

“Probably not!” Estevez said. “The number of people I’ve met, the support we’ve gotten from the NC State community and the entrepreneurs in this area, have been tremendous. It’s humbling to think about just how many people have been willing to help us pursue our dreams.”

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