Dr. Will Oliver, the Businessman Who Said NeverWritten by Bryant Miller
“Anything but business and education.”
That’s what a young Will Oliver said when his academic advisor asked him what he would do if his carefully crafted life plan didn’t work out. All Sattler business majors are grateful that he was dead wrong on both counts. Dr. Oliver is now the head of the business department at Sattler College.
Comical as it may seem, this odd “twist of fate” epitomizes Dr. Oliver’s life, and captures the essence of what he intends to communicate to his students.
Will Oliver was born in Montana, spent his grade school years in Seattle, and then moved to Fairbanks, Alaska for college. As a freshman in college, he had his life plan firmly in place. He would study political science and law and become a senator from the state of Washington. During this time, he spoke those ill-fated words to his advisor.
His aversion to business was the first to fall. During his college years, he set his sights on building a successful business from the ground up — a startup. This began his trajectory toward a long and highly successful career in business. After receiving his bachelor’s in accounting, he went to work for Deloitte, one of the biggest and best accounting firms in the country. After returning to school at MIT for his MBA, he then worked under Mitt Romney at Bain and Company for several years. Eight years after his initial dream, Oliver started his first company.
Since then, his experience has mushroomed into nearly every possible area of business. He’s started four companies with “mixed success.” He spent time at several consulting firms, including Gemini Consulting. His projects included small business overhauls and optimization for Fortune 500 companies like KMart. He worked as a venture capitalist for a $13 billion fund. In the words of his recruiter friend, “Will, you’re the real deal. You really have done everything!” There’s not much in the business world he hasn’t touched.
But the business world wasn’t his whole world. Born and raised in the Lutheran Church, it wasn’t until age seventeen that Will took his faith seriously. One day, while participating in a youth event, Will looked around and realized that those around him were actually experiencing something remarkable in prayer and worship. Unable to restrain himself, he gave himself to Jesus, and he hasn’t looked back since. He “became the Jesus freak of the 60s.” He began attending five different churches each week, and went to a Lutheran Bible Institute to study the Scriptures. Since then, he’s been a part of an Assembly of God church, a Methodist church, and Evangelical Covenant church. Grace Chapel, a large church in the Boston area, is his current home church.
In every church he’s attended, he’s taken servant leadership roles. At Grace Chapel, he realized that his special needs daughter needed her own place in a church that wasn’t geared toward people with her limitations. So he and his wife Heather started STARS, a ministry for special needs individuals.
Dr. Oliver with his wife Heather, their daughter Sarah, and the STARS special needs group from Grace Chapel
Dr. Oliver summed up his journey of faith in one sentence. “I’m a born again mongrel who loves serving.”
Will’s life took another significant turn when he “completely retooled” himself to become a business professor. He enjoyed several stints as an adjunct professor, and believed at the time that “microfinance was the salvation of the economy.” Back to school he went to make a career of teaching microfinance only to discover that it wouldn’t save mankind after all. But by then, he was invested in business education and teaching positions. After stints at Brandeis, Umass Amherst, and Gordon College, he was again preparing to change schools, when his brother called him with an opportunity that would bring his two worlds together in a way he never saw coming.
Will Oliver with his wife, Heather, after completing his doctoral degree
When Dr. Oliver learned about Sattler College, he pounced. It’s the best job he’s ever had. In energetic Dr. Oliver fashion, he quipped, “Jesus decided to give me some dessert at the end of a lovely career.” The Jesus culture at Sattler, the opportunity to pray in class, the singing at tea time is all a delightful treat.
But he also sees his time here as an opportunity to do something unique for the Lord. Two guiding principles, undergirded by a single question, animate his vision for his role as professor at Sattler.
First, the question: What does it mean to be a Christian businessman? This has been Dr. Oliver’s life-long guiding question — something he’s wrestled with for years. He plans every class period with the goal of getting students to join him in asking it. Dylan Martin, a junior business student, noted this. “He’s asking the hard questions himself. He wants people to wrestle through the same things that he’s wrestling through.” For Dr. Oliver, this means asking, “What would Jesus do?” in every situation.
This question forms the backbone for his two guiding principles. First is a pursuit of excellence. He teaches skiing to disabled people, and he approaches it as if he was teaching skiing to Jesus. He put it this way. “Do you think Jesus made crumbie chairs as a carpenter?! Can you imagine having a Jesus-built chair? It would have the finest precision… Am I right?” He pushes his students to approach each class and each project as if they were doing it for Jesus.
The second principle is reinvention. As a freshman in college, Will Oliver knew he would never study business or education. He’s now a business professor. At 45, he had never run a mile. He also ran his first marathon at 45. He’d always enjoyed hiking, but never hiked more than ten miles in his life. Last summer, he went on a 273 mile hike. If Dr. Oliver has learned anything in life, it’s that living a fruitful and successful life isn’t about reaching a steady state. It’s about being a constant learner with the wherewithal to start fresh in something new.
Dr. Oliver sea kayaking Kenai Fjords, Alaska
Dr. Oliver closed this interview with this story. “I’m not your trainer here at Sattler College… I’m your travel guide. We’re on a journey together … My students have to do the traveling… One of the coolest traveling experiences I’ve ever had was in McKinley Park (now Denali Park). There’s one fifty-mile road going back into the park, and cars aren’t allowed. The only way you can go back there is on a school bus owned by the park. That’s good news because you have thirty pairs of eyes looking for the caribou. I would miss it personally. But if you have thirty pairs of eyes looking for the moose, looking for the caribou, looking for the ptarmigan, you’re much more likely to have a great experience. That’s how I see the college experience. I’m your tour guide in the bus through McKinley.”
Dr. Oliver’s passion for communicating success to his students permeates everything he does. Though class times often feature good-natured bantering and an absent-minded, “What time does this class end?” Dr. Oliver’s connections, experience, heart for the success of his students, and pursuit of Christian business make all business students glad that Jesus gave Dr. Oliver this particular dessert at the end of his career.
Interested in learning about the business program led by Dr. Oliver? Visit our business major web page for a description or schedule a call with an admissions officer to ask any questions you might have.
A Family Bio
Dr. Oliver is supported by his wife Heather, pictured here. Heather traded in her career as a CPA to raise three great daughters, Betsi, Karen and Sarah. She now swims and bikes 5 days a week. Betsi helps run a nonprofit in Alaska, when she is not cross country skiing, fishing, hiking or working on her cabin. Karen lives in Virginia where she plays French horn in the Army band. She will give up fishing from her kayak for a month this summer to join Dr. Oliver in hiking the Colorado Trail. Sarah lives in a special needs home in Haverhill, MA. She loves to show people her wall full of Special Olympics skiing medals.
Front to back: Sarah, Betsi, and Karen