Cal State Fullerton’s College of Business and Economics is a leader in providing an affordable and accessible graduate business education to Southern California working professionals through the Fully Employed MBA (FEMBA) program.

Stanley Wu photographyThis 36-month, cohort-based initiative enables students to balance studies with their busy work schedules, completing each course in eight weeks, while gaining expert insights from faculty and fellow students on how to lead and succeed in today’s competitive business environment.

L3 Harris Technologies program manager Ari Leon ’21 is graduating through the FEMBA program this spring. She looks back at her time as a graduate student at the College of Business and Economics, how it will help her in the future and how she adapted to the virtual learning environment during COVID-19.

What is the most significant thing you have gained from your experience in the CSUF FEMBA program? 

By far the most valuable takeaway from my experience is a macro-managerial perspective.

It’s very easy to come straight out of an undergraduate program with a silo perspective of the business world, especially when you begin working for a Fortune 500 company right out of college without any experience thinking about how your actions affect other departments, or the whole image of the company.

I was fortunate enough to work all throughout my undergraduate and graduate experience, and I could clearly see that the FEMBA curriculum was tailored for its intended audience. Nothing is spoon-fed to you, and almost everything that you write about or speak about in class is intensely scrutinized through a lens of, “Yes, but what would the shareholders think of that answer? How would your employees react to that perspective?”

There is also no room for excuses in the FEMBA program. In an undergrad class you might be able to get away with, “Oh, I had a late night and had to pick up a double shift, I’m too tired to contribute.” But the strict answer in the FEMBA program is, “No, you do not get a free pass. Everyone here has a job, everyone here has families, and classes are specifically tailored to ensure the maximum learning opportunity possible with a flexible schedule. Speak up and contribute.”

The faculty at the College of Business and Economics does an exceptional job of instilling the unspoken mantra that future leaders and C-suite executives do not disappoint their shareholders with flimsy excuses, and neither should we. I loved that mentality of the program.

Why did you choose CSUF to pursue your MBA?

Ari Leon poses in professional attire and graduation sash in the courtyard of Steven G. Mihaylo Hall at Cal State Fullerton

Stanley Wu Photography

CSUF’s College of Business and Economics has a firm reputation for excellence both locally in Orange County and internationally. I’m a program manager, so I’m all about earned-value management.

When you look at the cost-benefit analysis of CSUF’s tuition rates compared with those of other programs, it really made the most economic sense.

Most of the faculty who teach the FEMBA courses have also taught at institutions such as UCI, Pepperdine, UCLA and USC, and we’re getting the exact same world-class education at a fraction of the cost, while working with real business owners and locally owned organizations.

Our alumni network is also much more extensive and valuable, because CSUF accepts on average a larger pool of business students than other institutions. I’m proud of my decision to pursue an MBA at CSUF.

You work at L3Harris in Anaheim as a program manager and have much experience in the aerospace industry. What do you think your MBA will do for you as you move forward in your career? 

In my first job at Parker Aerospace, the common sentiment in every executive career coaching presentation I sat through had someone mention at one point, “…and then I got my MBA.”

At the beginning of the FEMBA program, I told myself, “If you want to move into the C-suite one day, you have to have those magic three little letters at the end of your title, no matter what.”

What I didn’t know was that the entire FEMBA program would permanently change my perspective on what it really means to be an executive, especially in the aerospace and defense industry. It’s very easy to get caught up in the “success culture” of Instagram, with images of private jets, bespoke suits and fancy dinners flooding your feed. But the FEMBA program at CSUF taught me about the flipside of being a manager that no one wants to glamorize.

It means putting on a brave face and keeping people motivated as you have to announce another round of unexpected layoffs due to a complete standstill of the aerospace industry.

It means balancing the interests of veteran employees, while coming up with creative new ways to keep the younger, incoming workers interested long enough to replace a rapidly retiring workforce.

It means having to adapt within a week when mom-and-pop suppliers for your custom parts either suddenly go out of business, get absorbed by your competitors or no longer meet new requirements set by the FAA.

I look forward to applying these newfound leadership lessons as I further my career at L3Harris, because I realize that so much more good in the world can be accomplished by motivating people to be the best versions of themselves than I could ever accomplish by myself.

My ultimate goal is to not only reinvent the industry, but to reinvigorate it, with the blazing spirit of a new generation that sees problems from a different perspective and solves them by harnessing the work ethic and business principles upon which L3Harris was founded on: inspiring excellence.

How have you navigated the challenges of COVID-19 as you completed your MBA?

I specifically told myself I didn’t want to attend an online MBA program because it wouldn’t feel as legitimate. I sought out the FEMBA program because of its flexible schedule for full-time working folks, and because I could attend classes in-person at the Irvine Center.

When COVID-19 hit, and the FEMBA program had to resume exclusively online, I was absolutely heartbroken and devastated that I couldn’t see my cohort in person anymore. I was legitimately terrified that online classes would be absolutely horrible, and that everything from then on would be a farce of a graduate school experience. I cried a bit, I won’t lie.

And I could not have been more wrong.

I built a fully functioning e-commerce website from scratch during my first online class during the pandemic. My teammates beautifully pivoted to using FaceTime, GoogleChat and Zoom so that we could actively work in real time on presentations without missing a beat. At work, I became my team’s official Zoom expert because of how often I used the platform for school. And best of all, in the middle of a pandemic, when all hope was lost, I was able to successfully interview, negotiate and earn an amazing new dream job at L3Harris.

In the end, the thing I feared the most, which was learning entirely in an online environment, turned out to contribute to the most life-altering and career-enhancing experience I could have ever asked for.

As an added bonus, I’ve made lifelong friends with my MBA cohort. They really are like family to me, and I could not have asked for a better group of diverse, funny and fabulous future leaders with which to share this experience with.

Shout out to the FEMBA class of 2021, who had to endure my obsessive rants about aerospace, colonizing Mars and creating a commercial space industry for the past three long years. When I finally make that ticket to Mars as affordable as a plane ticket to Texas, we’re all heading out there on a trip together. I love you all!