Dr. Jamie Williams, ’90, ’20, dreamed as a boy about transforming into superheroes on the pages of comic books – but he sometimes had doubts in his own abilities. Through guidance from his older brother Dennis, Jamie found a superpower within himself that lets him put on a hero’s cape each day to accomplish success and become one of this year’s Best and Brightest Online MBAs named by Poets&Quants.
“I had a lot of Gandalfs and Obi-Wan Kenobis along the way, but Dennis gave me universal truths I still carry with me,” said Jamie. “Dennis taught me how to compete, set goals and always exceed expectations. Through his help, I became a first-generation college student at Nebraska.”
Jamie came to Nebraska from Davenport, Iowa, and competed as an All-Big 8 tight end for Nebraska’s conference championship teams of the early 80s. He played more than 10 years in the NFL, including as a member of the 1989 Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers. He often used superheroes as motivation before games, and points to Dennis for giving him the secret ingredient to success.
“Dennis was reading comics, so me and my friends would follow in his footsteps and find great escape in the pages of Marvel and DC comics. What really was happening is we were exercising our brains more than we realized. I’m all about leadership, and when you’re talking about Spiderman or Captain America or Black Panther – you’re talking about leadership. It was preparing me for challenges ahead,” he said.
Building Arts Through Athletics
After completing his football career, Jamie took his leadership into education. He earned a master’s in mass communication and a doctorate in education in organization and leadership, with an emphasis in sports administration. He worked in leadership positions in education and as an entrepreneur, but sees his greatest accomplishment as building a first-of-its-kind NCAA sports program at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
“I got a call from the president of the Academy of Art. I thought she wanted to ask for autographs. Instead she says, ‘I want to build an athletic program.’ I’m thinking some intramurals or clubs, but no, she says she wants to be like Cal or Stanford. So I said, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ and she said, ‘I want to beat somebody.’ That’s when the light went on for me because I have that competitive fire.”
Jamie explained how athletics can build unification, even at an arts school. He saw a unique advantage for the school, which would become the only arts school in the country to compete at the NCAA level.
“I knew we could do it because there are a lot of athletes who would love to study fashion, make films or become animators. In business they talk about your core competencies, your competitive advantage, your mission and values – and guess who owns that? You do. I saw that right away and said, ‘We can do this.’”
He knew he had to be the engine leading the way and went the next four years without taking a vacation – starting the initiative in a small office by himself. Once again, he exceeded expectations by building a program that eventually earned NCAA Division II membership in 2012, and became the first program to win two national championships in its first year of eligibility with titles in men's and women’s track and field.
Transforming Creativity with MBA@Nebraska
Despite his success working in academics and athletics, including teaching at Varna Free University in Bulgaria and being involved with business ventures such as the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center, Jamie heard Dennis’ words again motivating him to move to the next challenge. The MBA@Nebraska program checked the boxes for his next critical mission.
“Ultimately, I’m a content creator, and one of the things I want to do is give back to the world by potentially building a content company,” Jamie said. “That’s why I wanted to get my MBA. Outlets are hungry for content and good storytelling. A lot of creatives know how to create, but how do you turn that into a company where you can monetize content across different platforms?”
Jamie found the MBA@Nebraska program had the kind of faculty and curriculum he needed to round out his entrepreneurial experiences.
“The program is such that I could make it unique to me and what I’m passionate about. All the faculty deliver information in their own style and that’s what I wanted. They bring in their own experience, personality and opinions that provide the foundation to make you think about business in different ways. I talk about always trying to exceed expectations myself, and that’s exactly what the Nebraska program did.”
In addition to earning certification in supply chain, he took the Strategic Management and Policy (MNGT 853) capstone course from Dr. Laura Poppo, professor and Donald and Shirley Clifton Chair in Leadership, which helped him grasp business strategies in ways he had not considered.
“When she talked about the strategy Madonna used to become an icon, I suddenly saw how innovative it was. At the same time I asked myself, ‘Did Dr. Poppo just use Madonna to teach us about internal capability?’ I saw much better how Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson, and all that great music we had, also had strategic innovation working for them,” Jamie said.
Poppo witnessed Jamie’s fearless superhero nature working with fellow students.
“Jamie is not afraid to put ideas out in class,” Poppo said. “He nurtures and builds a community of critical thinkers. He’s often the first to post in class discussions, and integrates and synthesizes comments through ‘if-then’ statements, and by asking others what they think. When we were talking about Madonna’s success, he jump-started the conversation by talking about how cool it was to be studying Madonna, and then elaborated why. This got others to think about her success.”
Dr. Scott Swenseth, associate professor of supply chain management and analytics, noted Jamie’s ability to transfer his enthusiasm to help elevate others.
“With Jamie, learning goes a step further,” Swenseth said. “He learned how an athletic organization’s handling of operations and supply chain management were echoed in the success of the team on the field, and it wasn’t just about his quest for knowledge, but also helping others gain the same level of understanding. Whether working on teams, encouraging live discussions online or volunteering to present to student clubs, he always brought others up to his level.”
Moving Forward in Turbulent Times
As Jamie graduated from the MBA@Nebraska program, he found himself in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and probable recession. Soon after, racial tensions took hold with the death of George Floyd during an incident with Minneapolis police. Jamie explained his own culture studies and reflected on his doctoral dissertation, including an interview he conducted with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa.
“I was amazed at how much Archbishop Tutu knew about U.S. history,” said Jamie. “He told me the U.S. was one of the best democratic ideologies on the planet, and is number one in many facets of business. But he said he doesn’t see our country ever living up to those ideals until we have true reconciliation with our history on race. That never left me.”
Jamie pointed out the U.S. is still a relatively young nation compared to other countries in which he visits and works. At age 60, he hopes real change can still happen in his lifetime.
“We need self-awareness. I personally have a very diverse network. We all share commonalities in some way – whether growing up in Nebraska, studying supply chain management, loving comic books. We have those commonalities. The fact people are okay living in divided communities is crazy. It’s illogical.”
He hopes universities can embrace their position as thought leaders to provide leadership amidst cultural turmoil. He believes Nebraska can play a stronger role.
“If we’re looking for long-term sustainability – educators, universities and athletic departments have a responsibility to lead the way. In athletics, you come together with different backgrounds for a common goal. The universities are the philosophers and need to put forth that wisdom and live up to that responsibility. That’s what can save our society and define a new social contract in our country,” Jamie said.
To learn more about the MBA@Nebraska program, visit: https://business.unl.edu/mba.