For Joe Molina, role models matter. The second-year MBA student was raised early on by a single mom on the outskirts of San Diego, sandwiched between the beach and the desert. When he was 7, his mom married his stepdad, a Navy SEAL. The family rode dune buggies and camped together in the desert. “My stepdad kind of saved the family,” he says. “He took in two kids and really taught me what kind of father I should be.” Molina joined the military right out of high school, became a decorated Navy SEAL like his stepfather, got married, and had a daughter. At 32 and 27, respectively, he and his wife, Stephanie, enrolled at the University of San Diego, becoming first-generation college graduates.
Now, at 43, after nine deployments, Molina is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. He, Stephanie, and their three children—ages 13, 8, and 4—live in graduate student housing. His interest in entrepreneurship and finance led him to the MBA program. “It’s like being part of the SEAL teams. Stanford is arguably the best school in the world for this program. I wanted to be part of it.” Future interests, he says, range from one day leading a large business to starting his own. “Due to the experiences I’ve had in the military, I’m passionate about leadership.” Perhaps, he says, he’ll start a venture fund focused on veteran-led start-ups. For now, he’s most focused on being a role model for his kids.
“I think of leadership as a lifestyle. For me, that means how I communicate with my children, how I’m accountable and responsible to them, and showing them that anything is possible.”
“We were a big military family. My grandfather was in the military. My father was in the military. My parents divorced, and my mom married another military man. My stepfather had a major impact on my life and developing my character.
“I met Stephanie at a dive bar when I was stationed in San Diego. Stephanie walks into the bar and it’s like Moses parting the Red Sea. I just saw her and everything separated. I walked right up to her and asked for her number. She worked on the military base too and had to ask permission from her boss. For our first date, I borrowed my buddy’s Harley, and she got on the back. From that day forward, we haven’t been apart.
“When I wrote my essay about what’s important to me and why, to apply to Stanford, I told the story of when our first daughter was born and how I wasn’t there.
I was deployed overseas. Stephanie had moved back to her hometown. Her mom was at her side, but not me. Stephanie was pivotal in the decision for me to not come home from deployment. She wanted me to be with my team, my platoon. You just draw a sense of strength from that—her independence, resilience, and her selflessness.
“When I was 32, I decided to go to college. I had begun to realize the value of an education and the opportunities that it opens up. You have to be a college graduate by 35 to be an officer in the military, so I graduated in three years.
“Nobody thought I’d ever get into Stanford. People told me, ‘You’re too old. Your test scores aren’t high enough.’ But since I’ve been here, I’ve been able to thrive, and I think I’ve contributed a lot to the classroom with perspective and experience that a lot of people don’t have.
“We live in Escondido Village family housing in an 800-square-foot apartment with one bathroom, which requires a lot of coordination in the morning. It says to my kids that you can live simply with just a little bit of love and respect. When they are older, they can always remember that time they were living in what we call the Hobbit House at Stanford.”
Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.