Kevin Willett Goes From UML Dropout to Award-Winning Adjunct Business Faculty Member

A person with gray hair and a beard wearing a white T-shirt leans against a brick wall and poses for a photo. Image by Ed Brennen
Kevin Willett's knack for networking helped him become an adjunct faculty member in the Manning School of Business - some 40 years after he dropped out of UMass Lowell.

By Ed Brennen

A quick scroll through the LinkedIn posts of “Professor Kev” tells you a lot about Kevin Willett, the Manning School of Business adjunct faculty member behind the account.

Willett kindly shares job, internship and volunteer opportunities with students. He reposts updates from the Rist DifferenceMaker program, for which he is the Manning School’s faculty fellow. He posts random photos of various flavors of Mountain Dew, to which he is admittedly addicted.

And he also uploads self-produced videos — more than 180 and counting.

There are scores of student success tip videos, including “What to do on the first day of class” and “Why you don’t want to be the quiet one when working on group projects.”

There are also more than 70 episodes of the “Professor Kev Show” podcast — brief interviews that he does over Zoom with student entrepreneurs from around the world. 

Willett started the podcast last fall as a way to spotlight UMass Lowell students participating in the DifferenceMaker program. It has grown to include interviews with young entrepreneurs from as far away as Rwanda and South Korea.

A screen shot of three people talking on a Zoom call. Image by Kevin Willett
On one of his first episodes of the "Professor Kev Show," Kevin Willett, top right, interviews students Anir Dasgupta, top left, and Matthew Almeida about the Finance Society.

“When I did my first global episode, I thought, ‘OK, that was kind of cool,’ because I never saw that coming,” says Willett, whose network of potential interview subjects continues to grow with each new post. “It’s just fun. I love hearing people’s stories.”

Willett was sharing stories and connecting people long before he began teaching Professional Communications and Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Business at UML in 2017. In his past professional life, he was chief financial officer at Washington Savings Bank in Lowell. He was there when the recession hit in 2008.

“People were scared. I’m sitting there in my office looking at my little community service plaques, and I'm thinking, ‘I'm supposed to do something,’” the Lowell native says.

So he started Friends of Kevin, a business development group that hosts networking events in the Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire. In 2013, he created the spinoff New England B2B Networking Group for the business-to-business market.

“We started connecting people, and I just fell in love with the randomness of watching someone get a job because of our events,” says Willett, who features members in “3 Questions With …” videos that he posts on YouTube.

A person in a suit holds an award while posing for a photo with another person in front of a blue backdrop. Image by courtesy
Kevin Willett, right, poses with business student Chioke Onwuogu after receiving an Exceeding Excellence Teaching Award from the Student Government Association last year.
Willett was hosting an event for nonprofit groups at Mill No. 5 in Lowell a few years ago when he met former DifferenceMaker Director Holly Lalos. She asked if he’d ever considered teaching. 

“I remember looking at her with so much mixed emotion. I wanted to do it, but I was afraid at the same time,” Willett says.

That’s partly because Willett had once failed as a student in the Manning School of Business.

“I just didn’t have the maturity or study skills,” says Willett, who remembers getting a 42 on his first calculus exam.

“My friend said, ‘Good news, Kev, you don’t have to worry about solving for X, because you solved for F,’” says Willett, who still winces at the jab. “I’m sitting here with my 1.6 GPA, and I’m done.”

Willett took a retail job at CVS, where his boss encouraged him to go back to school. He earned an associate degree in accounting from the former Newbury College, which had a satellite campus in Lowell. He continued for his bachelor’s degree in business from Northeastern University before eventually earning an MBA from Southern New Hampshire University.

When he got in front of his first class in the Manning School, he was hooked.

“The more I’ve done it, the more my personality has come out,” says Willett, who was the Manning School’s 2023 recipient of the Exceeding Excellence Teaching Award from the Student Government Association.

A person takes a photo of an orange soft drink in their car. Image by Kevin Willett
"Celebrated the end of the semester by enjoying a Mountain Dew Livewire" adjunct faculty member Kevin Willett, a Mountain Dew connoisseur, posted recently on his Professor Kev LinkedIn page.
Willett says his struggles as an 18-year-old first-year student makes him more empathetic as a teacher.

“I never want any student to feel as overwhelmed as I did,” he says. “If I see you struggling, I’m going to say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ If someone is in that boat, I’m going to do whatever I can to help them.”  

He also celebrates their accomplishments. Each semester, Willett writes congratulatory emails to every student that he’s met on the Manning School dean’s list. He wrote six emails after his first semester in 2017; last spring, he wrote more than 350.

“I just want them to remember that I’m going to be there for them when they need a recommendation letter,” he says.

In addition to his DifferenceMaker duties, Willett teaches courses to local high school students in the UMass Commonwealth Collegiate Academy. This fall, he plans to help rising senior business majors Marvin Baez and Julio Pepen-Pena launch a business networking association for students.

“I’m super-excited about it,” says Willett, who hopes students find inspiration in his professional path.

“I joke that it’s my redemption story. I went from having to leave UMass Lowell to now being a professor,” he says. “I tell my students, ‘It's not how the game starts, it's how it ends. You may go through these challenges, but in the end, they may work out for you.’”