Phillipe Rodriguez’s interest in space and aviation, born amid his cluttered play area as a child, was nurtured by a grandfather’s tales of World War II and flowered during science camps. Today, the 25-year-old Stanford GSB MBA candidate is looking forward to a career he hopes will make the most of his dual interests in physics and business.
Tell us how your family influenced your pursuit of higher education.
My parents always thought college was important, and all my life they’ve been really supportive of my academic pursuits. My dad had some schooling at California State University Northridge and had to work two jobs to help his parents out. My mom graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with her undergraduate accounting degree and also worked to help her parents. My grandparents didn’t go to college at all. When I got into Cal State Fullerton, my parents didn’t want me to have to worry about working so I could graduate in four years. When I expressed interest in going to an MBA program, they were behind it because no one in the family had done so.
You studied physics as an undergrad but with an emphasis in business. Connect those dots for us.
There was an alum from the physics program at Fullerton, Dan Black, who started a company and ended up exiting the company after a sale. He realized the importance of having both business and technical backgrounds. Typically, students who study physics go off into academia or become adjunct professors. He thought there should be a different path, so he started a program called the Dan Black Program in Physics and Business, which replaced our upper-division physics electives with business electives — everything from marketing to accounting to organizational behavior. When I heard about the program, I realized it would be an opportunity to get that technical background along with those business classes.
What did you do during the two years between your undergrad degree and enrollment at Stanford?
I worked for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile System Center. I started in the GPS Directorate, then I went to work in the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate. All of these were in contract management roles, negotiating with contractors, putting out requests for proposals, working with program teams and engineers, ensuring compliance — all of that. I was working with the legal team as well. A significant part of it was their intellectual property portfolio.
But you were obviously interested in aerospace before working there.
Yes. That goes back to when I was really little, like 4 or 5 years old. My grandpa would tell me World War II stories — he served in the U.S. Navy. I remember one of the first toy planes I got was a die-cast F-117 Nighthawk. It looked really cool, and I ended up amassing a collection of aviation-related toys. Also, my parents always took me to science camps. I read books on aviation as well. That got me interested in military technology and how it has influenced the course of technology we see today.
You’ve said you’re interested in “new technological innovations and the processes by which they are created.” Are there specific tech innovations that still make you say, “Wow”?
I’m stuck between the Space Shuttle and the manned reconnaissance jet called the SR-71 Blackbird.
Both aviation accomplishments.
So much is involved. All of the technology and processors and equipment — the intricacies and nuances that we can’t see. Clearly, a lot of development and innovation occurred to even get those vehicles off the ground and to enable communication under extreme conditions, whether it’s under massive gravitational force for the Space Shuttle or soaring at incredible speeds high above Earth in the SR-71.
You coached and refereed a lot of youth soccer games when you were in high school and beyond. What did that teach you?
In one word: patience. My first year of that was for my senior project in high school, and I kept going back year after year, moving up a level every couple of years, which meant bigger games and bigger teams. I was young compared to the other referees and coaches, so it required not only patience with the kids who saw me as someone who wasn’t that much older than them, but also with their parents, who had a similar why-should-I-follow-you and you-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about attitude. It really did teach me patience.
Is patience important in what you’re doing now?
Patience to me now means that the outcome of any particular goal might not manifest itself immediately. But if I keep up with the same intensity and vigor, keep putting in the work, then eventually it may come to fruition.
Any notable takeaways from your time working as an aide to U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris?
I went there prior to my MBA for a three-month stint in her Los Angeles office. The work largely involved talking to constituents and working on family separation and California wildfire issues. It was definitely an eye-opener. It helped make clear to me that there are just so many different views within the constituency. It can be difficult as a politician to do what’s best for the people, because there are many conflicting views. I saw how much people cared about the state of our country and about legislative issues.
From that role you ended up as a diversity and inclusion intern at SoFi. How did that transition come about?
I had heard about the company, but hadn’t worked in a fintech startup before. I didn’t even know what fintech was before coming to Stanford. I knew how important culture was for companies, and diversity and inclusion was an area that was important to me. In addition, SoFi was building a platform that allowed customers to access a variety of financial resources. They were growing fast and pushing out products rapidly to develop this portfolio. I wanted an inside view of what that looked like, especially from the perspective of promoting diversity and inclusion internally and externally within a growing company.
Do you feel diversity and inclusion are an important part of business success?
Absolutely! It’s a vital part of why I’ve had many of the opportunities I’ve had. People reaching out within my community, people ensuring I had certain opportunities, people mentoring me through every stage in my life. Especially within companies, it’s important that the pool of candidates is diverse, that businesses make those opportunities available to everyone with fair selection processes and promote the inclusion of these important perspectives.
Any experiences at Stanford that have had a particularly strong impact?
Every week and every day is an experience in itself. In one of my first weeks here, a classmate was opening a protein snack bar. She got chocolate on her hand and said, “The product design of this chocolate bar is not conducive to the user experience.” I remember thinking, “Who says this?” This place is something else. I’ve been amazed by the caliber of the discussions.
How about classroom experiences?
I took an institutional investing course, and I was worried that I didn’t have the requisite background. I didn’t even know the difference between a hedge fund and private equity. It’s really hard to catch up when you’re in a class with people who’ve worked in those fields. But my professor, Hanno Lustig, told me what resources were available and was patient with me when I showed up for his office hours every week. I was extremely grateful for the time he invested into students, the care he placed into his teaching, and how he facilitated discussions within the class. I’m glad I stuck with the course because I learned quite a bit.
Photos by Kiefer Hickman