By David Perry
For alumni who volunteer to mentor student DifferenceMaker teams, their commitment is a labor of love.
“This is giving back for me. I credit the university and my time here for a lot of the success I have today. I relish the opportunity to advise students in any way that may help,” Jim Regan ’88 said at a recent DifferenceMaker event.
Regan, who earned his bachelor’s in business administration, is president and CEO of Digital Federal Credit Union, the largest credit union in New England. His stake in the university runs deep — his wife, Amy, is a double River Hawk, with a degree in finance (’89) and a master’s in education (’90).
His time here, the accessibility of his professors and his class of fewer than 100 fellow graduates made Regan’s experience an intimate one.
“It was a like a family, a big one, but a family,” says Regan. “That had a huge effect on me.”
Regan is in some ways typical of DifferenceMaker mentors. He’s successful, believes his Lowell degree launched him toward opportunity and loves his work. He joined Digital Federal in 1992 as an auditor, ascending through the ranks. All the while, he has maintained ties to his alma mater.
The DifferenceMaker program, which helps usher student entrepreneurial projects from concept to market, has grown in popularity over the years, and there is more at stake. In April, student teams will pitch judges in hopes of landing the lion’s share of $50,000 in prize money. A key component in the program is the involvement of alumni who draw on their years of experience to provide guidance and feedback to students as they develop their projects.
“It’s really not hard to find mentors,” says Steve Tello, senior associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development. “They love doing this. When we call, they always ask, ‘What can we do? Let us know.’
“Ideally, you want to have a person with some life or work experience that’s relevant to what a project is trying to accomplish. Disciplines don’t necessarily have to match. So someone might have been a health sciences graduate but has valuable experience starting a business.”
The alumni say they also learn from the experience.
’This is giving back for me. ... I relish the opportunity to advise students in any way that may help.”
-DifferenceMaker Mentor Jim Regan ’88
“From my organization’s perspective, this is another way to get ideas and thoughts about what is possible, about what people are looking for. I’m from a completely different generation, but there is an opportunity here to find out what young people value and what they need,” Regan says.
Andrew Sutherland ’94 has plenty of experience starting things. He serves as mentor to Veterans QRF , a web-based platform designed to help student veterans file service-related claims with the Veterans Administration that nabbed the DifferenceMaker Social Impact honors last spring.
Sutherland found his intellectual spark here and graduated with a business degree. He went on to earn a master’s in international accounting and finance from the London School of Economics.
He has spent nearly two decades in finance and administration with various startup businesses, including Litle & Co., which was acquired by Vantiv in 2012 for $400 million.
The ink was barely dry on the contract when Sutherland first returned to UMass Lowell to speak to students.
He co-founded his current company, Applied Biomath, with John Burke '93, ’95 (with both a bachelor’s and master’s in applied mathematics), who was a Delta Kappa Pi fraternity brother. Sutherland now serves as the CFO, while Burke is the CEO and president.
Sutherland sees mentoring as a way of giving back, especially to those who have served their country.
“I love our veterans,” he says. “There’s nothing I could do to pay them back enough."
David Tetrault, president and CEO of Veterans QRF, says Sutherland “has made his support for veterans and my idea extremely clear, as he has spent hours on the phone with me going over various aspects of Veterans QRF.”
Christopher McKenna ’89 left UMass Lowell with a degree in electrical engineering, attended law school and now is a partner at Boston’s Foley & Lardner law firm, specializing in intellectual property — particularly emerging technologies. He is currently working with DifferenceMaker teams, including the SmartEater automated diet monitoring system and Omnisense, which tracks athletes’ performance metrics.
McKenna returned to the university to give back around the time his son Christopher, a sophomore in the electrical engineering program, decided to follow his father’s footsteps to UMass Lowell.
“A good mentor acts like a coach,” says McKenna. “You can always coach people to the next step. But even more important is honest feedback. I learned that a lot of people won’t tell you the truth, but people appreciate it when you do. It is about being straightforward and to the point.”
Students are open to the feedback, and he feels he’s helping them advance their ideas.
McKenna came to the university from “humble” beginnings in Chelsea, found a strong, affordable engineering program and never knew what he missed: People who did what he does now.
“When I went to school, there was zero networking, no insight into the job market, nothing. It was a great practical, hands-on education. But this is all fairly new. And I’m glad to be part of it.”