2022 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Dr. Kimberly Pettaway Willis, North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

Dr. Kimberly Pettaway Willis

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

Age: 45

“Dedicated mother, motivated mentor, ambitious professor and FOCUSED professional.”

Hometown: Tarboro, North Carolina

Family Members: Ray (spouse), teenaged twins Donovan (son) and Mackenzie (daughter), Jarvis and Debbie Pettaway (parents)

Fun fact about yourself: I occasionally teach Sports Marketing and Sports Media, in person, at the United Arab Emirates Futbol Association in Dubai and I am the wife of a retired NFL player.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, BA Exercise Sport Science

Florida State University, MS Sports Administration

Florida State University, PhD Sports Management

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, MBA

Where are you currently working? North Carolina State University, Teaching Assistant Professor of Sport Management in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and Sport Management.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

  • Member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated
  • Member of Off the Field Players’ Wives Association of the National Football League (NFL)

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am proud of how much I have grown since starting the Evening Executive MBA Program in October 2020. I used to prefer to work diligently by myself and take on difficult tasks with minimal assistance from others. The program has made me a better collaborator and colleague. I have gained valuable experiences and insight from my peers and professors.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am proud of being able to start a new position at North Carolina State University as a Teaching Assistant Professor, after being an Adjunct Professor at a different institution, while diligently working on my MBA. Teaching over 200 students while taking challenging MBA courses was stressful but rewarding. I was able to do what many considered as impossible. I remained dedicated and focused.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? After researching the top schools in the country, my heart and mind went back to my alma mater: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I remembered seeing signs for Kenan-Flagler Business School as an undergraduate student and wondering what it’d be like to be an MBA student while thoughtlessly doubting my ability to be accepted into the world-renowned school. I knew it would be a challenge to get accepted and a harder challenge to successfully complete the curriculum. I was intrigued with the overall program, concentration options, distinguished faculty, and professional opportunities Kenan-Flagler Business School had to offer. Kenan-Flagler Business School was the only school I applied to and it was the best decision I made!

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? The biggest lesson I gained during my MBA was understanding how to merge my new-found knowledge from my MBA experiences to my knowledge of sport to mentor and teach my undergraduate and graduate students. With my new professor position at North Carolina State University, I have been able to successfully teach five (yes, five courses with over 200 students) different courses within the last year. I merged new concepts and strategies I learned in my MBA finance courses to material I taught my undergraduate Sport Finance and Economics students. Each MBA course has been instrumental and beneficial to how I am able to add the business side to sport. I can honestly say my experiences in the Evening Executive MBA program have made me a better leader and professor.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? Prayer! There were times I thought I would not be able to juggle the demands of family and work while pursuing my MBA. I am an overachiever and I put demanding goals at the top of my list. I realized setting aside one day for “Kimberly time” was beneficial to my mental well-being and overall health.

My son wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps by playing collegiate football and one day playing in the NFL. My daughter loves coding, drawing and is interested in animation. I knew an MBA would give me the tools needed to assist my children with business ventures, financial literacy, and professional decisions they will make in the future. Those 4 a.m. reading sessions, week-long exam preps, sleepless nights, five- hour exams (some took me longer because I overanalyze everything), tears of frustration, clouds of doubt, mental struggles, 5:30 p.m. to 9:50 p.m. MBA class sessions, and the thought “why am I doing this?” was worth it! Worth it because I did what some considered impossible: juggling the demands of family with middle-school twins, teaching undergraduate and graduate students, dealing with the deaths of many family members and friends, and devoting time to Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated’s mission of sisterhood, scholarship and service. Without those “don’t give up, you’ve got this” conversations with my parents, family, Soror Reed, and close friends Katisha and Chelsey, others would not be reading about me in Poets & Quants Best & Brightest Executive MBA Graduates for the Class of 2022.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Time management is crucial. You must be dedicated to finishing strong. Networking with your classmates is extremely beneficial, so take advantage of each opportunity. Procrastination is not and will never be your friend!

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? Going back to school after getting a PhD isn’t beneficial” is the biggest myth I have heard. One thing that bothers me is when I get asked “Why do you want to get an MBA when you have a PhD already?” I wanted to say “Why not?” but the professional Kim decided against that response. My experiences of going back to school have opened many doors and opportunities for me. Although I have my PhD, I feel I am never “too educated” to learn more valuable information that will benefit my family and my career. My children saw my dedication and determination to the program and I want to be their motivation to never give up…they must continue to put forth the effort towards accomplishing those goal others said they couldn’t achieve!

What was your biggest regret in business school? My biggest regret in business school was waiting to connect with more classmates. Although I met with others virtually, I did not take the initiative to get to know others as well as I should have. When we started the program in October 2020, we were virtual, and I did not “really” connect with others until a year later when we were able to meet face-to-face. I have now made lasting memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Two classmates have made lasting impressions, Kaneshia Campbell and Larry Coe. They have become more like family instead of classmates. When mentioning my regrets, I regret our interactions were almost one year into the program. Virtual learning is great during a pandemic, but I missed the opportunity to make more connections from the beginning. They both are hard-working and goal-oriented classmates. We hold one another accountable and always make sure we don’t forget deadlines, assignments, notes, etc. Kaneshia and Larry are now my honorary family members, and I am excited to see where our paths lead us.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I chose an Executive MBA program over a part-time or online alternative because I wanted the opportunity to meet other executive MBA students, network with others with similar experiences, and I loved the curriculum for the program. There are many MBA programs, but in my eyes, Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Executive MBA program was for me. I have made many strides, accomplished unthinkable goals, and now, I am etching my name into the extraordinary Class of 2022.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? Along with teaching, I want to merge my knowledge of business and sport management and offer consulting and coaching services to professional athletes, student-athletes and parents of student-athletes. I worked on a business idea during an elective course, and my team worked hard to assist me with a ‘startup’ plan. I am excited to start the consulting firm, but I will continue to teach university Sport Management courses nationally and internationally.

What made Kimberly such an invaluable addition to the class of 2022?

“Imagine you are meeting your students for the first class of the core Leading & Managing course for Executive MBA students and discover that one of them is a college professor with a specialty in core topics that your course covers (including having done her dissertation on one of the core Motivation Models taught in the course.) No pressure!

Kimberly, however, did not adopt an “I know this cold already” attitude; rather she reveled in learning new angles of the topics and seeing new applications. She not only completed the significant number of required readings but also explored many of the “If You Want To Know More” readings I suggest for students deeply interested in a particular topic.

She also was extremely generous helping peers navigate the course. Feedback received from classmates invariably mentioned her valuable contributions both to her team and to the class at large:

“Kimberly brings remarkable academic strengths to our team. She is especially gifted at explaining and infusing theory into our team conversations and academic writing. Kimberly is always prepared (in fact, she is typically prepared for future steps). Kimberly consistently pushes our team to elevate our analysis and she listens deeply to each member of the team. Her contributions are invaluable!”

“Kim has an incredible pool of experiences from which to draw. She is very intelligent but does not push it on others. She is perfectly content letting others share but always willing to speak from her own experience. Multiple times in class, I recall Kim sharing issues from work or personal experiences, sometimes even highly emotional. She is always able to do so with style and grace.”

To no one’s surprise Kimberly was one of the outstanding students in the class earning one of the highest grades not only for her work on papers and other deliverables but also for her contributions to her peers.

I had the privilege of teaching Kimberly again in a second core Leadership course. One of the main topics of the course was the Future of Work and students self-selected into one of a number of key topics to discuss in groups and then lead a poster session for the class. Kimberly had passion and knowledge to be a key member and spokesperson for the DEI topic. Many students commended her for adding significantly to their knowledge of the topic. After the class session, Kimberly sent me a number of links about NC State’s DEI initiatives, assessments and certificates. A treasure trove for our Associate Dean of DEI and for the Executive Director of Engagement and Inclusion at UNC Kenan-Flagler who lead our DEI Initiative.

We are very lucky to count Kimberly among our students and, soon, EMBA graduate!”

Mabel M. Miguel
Professor of Organizational Behavior 


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