2015 Best EMBA: Derek Herrera

Derek Herrera

Derek Herrera


UCLA, Anderson School of Management 

In 2012, Captain Derek Herrera suffered a bullet to the spine in Afghanistan that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Fast forward three years and Herrera was able to walk the stage to pick up his diploma with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton. But Herrera’s determination is only one part of his story. He was also the recipient of the John Wooden Global Leadership Award, which is given to one person each year who reflects humility, inspires others, serves the community, and achieves great results. A Bronze Star winner who has been actively involved with local veterans, Herrera is pursuing entrepreneurship by launching Spinal Singularity LLC.

Age: 31

Location: San Clemente, CA

Family Members: Maura (Wife)

Undergraduate School: US Naval Academy

Undergraduate Degree: BS Systems Engineering

Where are you currently working? Spinal Singularity LLC (Founder/Entrepreneur)

What is your most memorable moment from business school? The most memorable moment from Business School thus far has been the trip I took to Israel with a group of fifty other students as a part of an International Studies Program.  In seven days, we saw and learned more than I could have possibly imagined about Israeli culture and doing business in Israel. This was also an incredible opportunity to meet students from the Full-Time and Fully Employed MBA (FEMBA) program. The trip was aptly timed for me as well and I was able to visit the company headquarters of ReWalk Robotics, the makers of the only approved FDA robotic exoskeleton in the USA, a few months before they obtained FDA approval and subsequently went public on the NASDAQ.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I first visited a class on campus.  For anyone considering the program I highly urge you to go visit the prospective campus and truly gain a contextual understanding of the environment on campus.”

“If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…Infinitely less prepared to start or run a business.” 

Favorite Courses: Finance for the Emerging Enterprise, Operations Management

Which academic or professional achievements are you most proud of? John Wooden Global Leadership Award and Bronze Star Medal w/ V (Combat Distinguishing Device)

Who would you most want to thank for your success?  My wife, Maura, because she has always been there to motivate, challenge and inspire me. Throughout the most difficult and challenging periods of our lives, she has continually been there and has supported me at every step of this journey.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program?  At the UCLA EMBA program, I found the perfect combination of intellectual rigor, top-notch faculty, and network of peers that I knew I wanted to be a part of. The network that I have since joined continues to amaze and inspire me; my classmates are truly incredible. Additionally, I have found that working while completing this program has allowed me to experiment and implement the tools we are learning in real-time, which has allowed me to develop a much richer contextual understanding of when and how to use such techniques. Personally, I continue to recommend an EMBA program to many of my peers (especially at UCLA), and I am happy to say that many of these individuals have applied and began their studies here at UCLA.  For someone with the requisite experience as a manager, I strongly suggest exploring such a program.

What did you enjoy most about the executive MBA program? Above all else, I enjoy the time I have been able to spend with my classmates. They truly are incredible and I have learned more from them than I have from any course. We have such a collaborative, trusting, and open atmosphere that I know I will continue to keep in touch with, and rely upon, the network built here at UCLA.  Our EMBA admissions director Sylvia Haas mentioned to me during my admissions interview, “It takes diamonds to polish diamonds.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement. Although I came from arguably the most hard-working, intelligent, technically-proficient community of young executives in the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC), I get a very similar feeling working with my classmates at UCLA as I did there. The UCLA EMBA network is strong, supportive, responsive, and highly experienced across multiple functional areas and industries and I am truly honored to be amongst such phenomenal people.

What are your long-term professional goals? Start and run a successful business. Continue to give back by being active in the non-profit community. Strive to be a good Ambassador for the Special Operations Community. Mentor others and help them to identify and achieve their goals.

Fun fact about yourself: I am the first person in America to own a personal exoskeleton (device that allows paraplegics to stand and walk).  Also, I was able to use this device to (medically) retire from the Marine Corps without using my wheelchair.

Favorite book: Killing Rommel – Steven Pressfield

Favorite movie: A Clockwork Orange

Favorite musical performer: Naughty by Nature

Favorite television show: House of Cards

Favorite vacation spot: Delaware

What are your hobbies? Cycling, Dogs, Walking (ExoSkeleton), Public Speaking 

Twitter Handle: @derekherrera 

What made Derek such an invaluable addition to the class of 2015 for your executive MBA program? 

“I met Derek exactly 2 years ago when he came to interview for the EMBA program. He had completed rehab just 3 months previous for a combat injury he sustained in Afghanistan, as a Marine Special Operations Officer, when a bullet to his spine left him paralyzed from the chest down. Yet, here he was, ready to take the next step forward in his life and career, sitting in his wheel chair in my office, asking about our career services and the kinds of transitions that previous military EMBA students had made. 

Derek entered our program that fall as a member of the EMBA class of 2015 and since that time, he has been one of the most inspiring students we have ever had in our Executive MBA program. Before coming to the EMBA program, he chose to literally marginalize his physical limitations to the fullest extent possible, in part by becoming the first individual to purchase a new and innovative set of robotic leg braces made by ReWalk Robotics, which enables individuals with spinal cord injury to stand upright and walk (ReWalk is the only exoskeleton with FDA clearance). During his first year in the program, Derek made the decision to transition out of the Marines in order to move forward with a civilian entrepreneurial career. This video clip will give you some background. He also made the conscious decision not to let his injury define him and prevent him from achieving any of the goals he has set out to accomplish. 

While in the EMBA Program, Derek has made every minute count–spending as many hours a week as possible taking full advantage of all of the resources that UCLA Anderson has to offer a budding MBA entrepreneur. Derek spends his time on campus, when not in his EMBA classes, taking extra electives, meeting with entrepreneurs and VCs, working on his business plan, developing relationships with mentors, exploring possible entrepreneurial resources, and researching technologies related to his business idea. 

Derek is a natural leader among his peers. He gave an incredibly moving leadership talk to our first-year EMBA students this past quarter where he spoke about how his military experiences, including the injury he sustained, have shaped his leadership abilities and point of view: “Inspire others to act and follow because when you lead by example, you are always leading even though you may not be in charge.”  This past fall, Derek was selected as one of the three student recipients of the John Wooden Global Leadership Award Fellowships, one of the highest honors at UCLA Anderson. 

And that doesn’t include his life and work off campus. Derek has devoted a large part of his time outside of business school to advocating for veteran and wounded-veteran related causes. He speaks at numerous events, conferences and fund-raisers, many on a national or global level. His path has unfolded for him in an unexpected but seemingly natural way that has enabled him to meet politicians, past presidents, rock stars journalists, and fellow wounded warriors. He takes it all in stride in an impressively unaffected and humble way, all the while keeping his eye trained on the goal of increasing awareness and support for our wounded warriors. He has been able to share his story nationally and internationally, and advocate for veterans and paralysis issues while working to inspire and motivate the people he has met along the way. This link will give you some background. 

We value the military students that attend our Executive MBA Program. They bring with them a level of professional maturity and leadership experience not always found to the same degree in a corporate environment. Derek’s strength of character, integrity and inspiring leadership raise the bar for the other students in his class as well as for our Executive MBA Program, which is what makes him such a valuable addition to the EMBA class of 2015 at UCLA Anderson.”

– Susan Dearing, Executive Director and EMBA Career Coach at the Professional MBA Career Management Center

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