A Second Chance at Success

From high school dropout to leading a company with almost 200 employees, Joey Rivera grew his business by embracing the challenges he's met along the way.
October 27, 2017

Since Joey Rivera founded his cyber-defense software and federal IT services company in 2005, the company has grown to almost 200 employees and contractors. With 2017 net profits projected to be 65 percent over last year, and with 100 percent growth in licensing for EAGLE6, its software tool used by large organizations to manage and protect IT infrastructure, Rivera Group is poised for a very good year.

In Rivera's account of his path from GED to Ph.D., and from teenage runaway to CEO of Rivera Group, he highlights a series of accomplishments, with each one building on the next.

From a troubled childhood home, he entered the foster care system. In response to Rivera's repeated attempts to run away, a juvenile judge court-ordered him to join the Marines. At 22, he left the Marine Corps a changed man, driven and focused. After earning his GED, he joined the Army Reserve, where he rose to drill sergeant, then to lieutenant colonel.

Meanwhile, as a student who, for a semester, lived out of his car packed with essentials (including a travel iron and ironing board), he graduated from Indiana University Southeast with a BA in general studies. With that momentum, after teaching himself programming from a book, he earned a master's degree in computer resources and information in 2004, then founded Rivera Group within the year.

I went from GED to Ph.D., and I did it without resting; that's my message.

—Joey Rivera, founder, Rivera Group

As a nascent entrepreneur, husband and father, Rivera graduated from the prestigious U.S. Naval Postgraduate School with a Ph.D. in software engineering, then taught computer science at West Point. The one-time anti-terrorist specialist in the U.S. Marines continues to provide expertise in highly classified cyberwarfare for the U.S. Cyber Command.

Now within his company and in his community, Rivera teaches young people how to leverage momentum, as he has done, and how to be efficient while enjoying work rooted in their strengths. "I went from GED to Ph.D., and I did it without resting; that's my message," he says.

From Junkyard Dog to Blank Slate

Rivera, who tends toward optimistic realism, refers to himself affectionately as a "junkyard dog." Of people like himself, he says, "We have this sense of survival—this sense of fight. We can sense weakness in a competitor and know how to achieve the stronger mindset."

Back when skipping high school, he would hang out at a park in his southern Indiana town, where he got to know a homeless guy who frequented a bench there. "He said to me, 'You know, you remind me of me when I was your age,'" Rivera recalls. "That was an epiphany for me."

Even before joining the Marines, back when he was jailed often enough to know the juvenile guard's favorite song, Rivera had the sense that he must reverse course. His introduction to the Marines provided him with a blank slate for that reinvention. As a new recruit, his basic training instructor drilled into him: "Chances are, if you had a good life, you wouldn't be standing on these yellow footprints. But nobody cares what you did before you got here. Nobody cares if you're rich or poor. This is a do-over."

Rivera, who loved not being known, promised himself that he would not go back to his old ways.

Finding Power in Leveraging Momentum

While an expert in all things cybersecurity and federal IT services, Rivera's primary interest is in the story of human struggle, and encouraging other non-traditional business owners to know that it's possible to be successful, even if you didn't get the best start in life.

One way he manages to compete on a relatively level playing field in pursuing federal contracts is by focusing on "set-asides"—federal contracts designated for small businesses with certain certifications and socio-economic qualifications. Rivera, a Puerto Rican business owner injured while serving in the armed forces, qualifies for contracts designated for service-disabled veterans and minority-owned business enterprises.

He believes in achieving sustainable, incremental growth based on momentum. After narrowing his target list to ten small-business set-aside contracts expiring in a given year in his company's area of expertise, he focuses on: 1.) meeting those ten key decision-makers; 2.) convincing them that Rivera Group is better qualified than their current provider in a certain area; and 3.) asking to be introduced to that prime contractor as a preferred subcontractor.

He puts a target in the middle of a whiteboard, and together with his team, creates a mind-map representing the firm's existing relationships, qualifying past performance and competitors. "We figure out what makes us a strong candidate, and how to leverage that," he says. "Our success is about capitalizing on the momentum of our individuals, our team and our customers."

Rising to the Challenge

In the Marine Corps, Rivera learned that when he thought he was pushed to his limit, he wasn't even close to being done. "In military training, or as an entrepreneur, you always have more gears. If you have known the extent of extreme struggle, running a small business is easy," he says, laughing. "Hard is relative. When you have to kick into high gear and dig deep, it's easy, because you've been there before. It's an exercise in outlasting the competition."

As a leader, he encourages his team members to go deeper and reach beyond their self-perceived limits. He encourages lively debate and loves to be challenged by them. In general, challenge seems to be the guiding force in his life.

“I would rather have a pencil jabbed in my ear than sit on a beach and watch waves," he says. For fun, he packs a motorcycle with everything necessary to sleep on the side of road and traverses countries including Iceland and Australia. “I would much rather be using the time accomplishing another impossible goal."

Photo: Getty Images