Mark Sanchez idly spun the blades of a box fan. He found it by the side of the road, broken beyond hope of repair; still, he took it home. After all, a working box fan would’ve done him no better: he had no electricity to make it run.
Instead, Sanchez sat on the floor and spun the fan with his finger, around and around, for hours at a time.
“I spun it in hopes that God would keep it spinning for eternity. I knew that it was never going to happen, I was willing to do anything and everything just to feel a sense of relief,” Sanchez recalls.
Faith is what Sanchez had instead of air conditioning in his makeshift apartment in Brownsville, Texas, a city on the Mexican border where the average high temperature stays above 80 degrees for two-thirds of the year. Mosquitoes would circle the apartment at all hours, biting Sanchez as he spun the box fan in vain.
“I was at my lowest point in life,” Sanchez says. “I lost everything and everybody that I’d ever known and loved, and I was the most alone that I’d ever been. I didn’t have anybody there to help me and I wouldn’t wish that existence on anyone.”
Sanchez now lives in Milwaukee, 1,500 miles away from that life, and his circumstances feel even further removed. He’s now a junior in the College of Business Administration majoring in economics and entrepreneurship and the owner of Aqua Navis LLC, a boat detailing service he founded in February 2023.
Entrepreneurship professor Dr. John Peterson taught Sanchez in spring semester of 2023 and vividly remembers how he approached him after class one day.
“He came to me in the first week of class and said, ‘I’m taking your class and that’s all fine and good, but I’ve already got a business idea and I’d like you to help me get started,’” Peterson says. “I asked him what the idea was, and he said that he’d been able to learn a lot about boat detailing and wanted to turn it into a business.”
Nobody took Sanchez boating as a kid, nor did he learn how to detail one in a class. Instead, Sanchez watched countless YouTube videos describing every step of the process: where to get products, how to properly buff and polish the exterior, why ceramic coating protects a boat’s surface and which one to use. He absorbed every bit of it, eager to get started.
“I’m motivated by a love for business, and boat detailing just happens to be the business that I found myself in,” Sanchez says. “It was kind of a no-brainer when I had access to so many free materials to learn.”
It’s possible Sanchez would never have gone to college or owned Aqua Navis without his keen eye for opportunity. It’s the same instinct that led Sanchez to take a leap of faith and move to Wisconsin. It happened one ordinary day, starting with a trip to the public library to use their computers and look for jobs. As he searched Craigslist for anything that could allow him to move into a marginally better apartment, a listing for Ashley Furniture popped up on the screen.
The company sought general laborers to assemble furniture in Arcadia, Wisconsin. It was full-time work and came with access to subsidized housing, something that had all the necessities Sanchez’s home in Brownsville lacked.
“All I had at that point was $200 and a plane ticket to La Crosse,” Sanchez says. “What really brought me up here was the chance at a better life. I thought if I took this job at Ashley Furniture and did well at it, my life would look better than it ever would in Brownsville, where it took me a couple months to muster up that $200.”
Sanchez worked 12-hour shifts, slowly building up his savings. He met his fiancé, Abigail, while she was studying theater education at Viterbo University. The two moved to Milwaukee when she graduated in 2020 and took a job as a teacher at a local high school.
While Abigail taught and pursued her acting career, Sanchez became more determined to get his college degree.
He landed at Waukesha County Technical College and immediately started building the academic track record that he never had a chance to build in high school. Sanchez earned a one-year GPA of 3.52, good enough to gain him entry into the National Technical Honor Society and Marquette University in the winter of 2023.
After everything Sanchez faced in his life — from his unstable childhood to the broken-down apartment to the constant threat of dehydration to facing the unknown with a mere $200 dollars in his pocket — starting Aqua Navis didn’t seem so intimidating.
“He explained how he needed to acquire customers, so I set him up with a couple of contacts for his business. For most students, it would have died right there,” Peterson says. “Many people his age wouldn’t follow up after that. He reached out, though, and one of my contacts who owns a marina told him ‘Yeah, come up, I’ll keep you busy.’”
“I was on the cusp of wanting to start this business at WCTC, but every single time I thought about filing I just made one excuse after another, to the point where I just let it go,” Sanchez says. “On my first day in John’s class, he told us the best time to be an entrepreneur is now, in your 20s, so you can try and fail at a million things with less risk.”
“Hearing that from him, it resonated with me that I’m here at Marquette; I have all the resources I need to be successful and I’m going to do this,” Sanchez adds.
Ever since he took the leap, Sanchez has had his professor by his side as a mentor. Peterson showed him how to incorporate his company and how to get an Employer Identification Number from the IRS. When Sanchez detailed Peterson’s boat, the latter made the former promise to use the payment to purchase business insurance, something most first-time entrepreneurs wouldn’t automatically know to do.
Recently, Peterson talked to Sanchez about the future of Aqua Navis, and how it might even grow while he studies for the next two years.
“I think he’s ultimately going to become more of a business coach specific to boat polishing,” Peterson says. “There’s a lot of guys out there just like him who want to make $1,000 per day and go home. No doubt in my mind, he can teach them how to do that.”
Sanchez says he would like to come back to Marquette for his MBA or law degree after graduation, but he’s primarily focused on growing Aqua Navis as much as he can while pursuing his undergraduate degree.
“Nobody is guaranteed a job no matter how many degrees they have, so why not at least try to do my own thing?” Sanchez says.
Occasionally, he thinks about the day he held the plane ticket to La Crosse. Sanchez couldn’t have predicted everything that was ahead of him, but he was sure of one thing, even back then: he was leaving that apartment and broken box fan behind for good.
“That’s the day I knew I was never going to look back, but I am also happy to have experienced such difficult times. Those difficult times are what have defined me and given me the willpower to climb the ladder of success.”