Georgia Aquarium president shares his personal journey to encourage students

KENNESAW, Ga. | Sep 13, 2019

KSU alumnus Joe Handy tells students that following their passion can open doors

While graduates often enter the workforce with a specific plan for their futures, they should not be afraid to let their passions take them in unexpected directions.

That was the advice offered by Georgia Aquarium President and Chief Operating Officer Joe Handy this week when he spoke to a classroom of students in the Michael J. Coles College of Business.

Handy, an alumnus of the Coles College’s Executive Master of Business Administration program, is the College’s current executive in residence. That role provides him opportunities throughout the semester to interact with students inside and outside the classroom, such as during Thursday’s presentation titled “Think Career and Passions Don’t Mix? Think Again.”

Joe Handy

Using his own professional journey as an example, Handy described how following one’s passions can lead to a fulfilling career, even one outside the field they originally chose.

“Life happens,” he said. “You can still make a straight line out of a crooked stick.”

Growing up, Handy always saw himself becoming a defense attorney, going as far as to enroll at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y., to study political science. However, he struggled in college and began questioning whether he made the right career choice.

“I knew I wanted to be an attorney because, in my heart, I intuitively knew I wanted to help people,” Handy said. “I thought being an attorney for people who were defenseless would let me provide that help for them.”

However, while working a summer job developing tours at the American Museum of Natural History, he realized that he could channel his passion for helping others into that role. He began to find fulfillment meeting museum patrons from around the world, learning from them, and ensuring that they got the most out of their experiences.

Handy ended up working at the museum for nine years in various departments – including education, business services, security, the call center, website design, and e-commerce – before Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus tapped him to help open the Georgia Aquarium in 2005. He was promoted to his current role in 2017.

Throughout everything, Handy has always been guided by his passion for helping others.

“The career opportunities I’ve had have been afforded to me because I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “I knew I wanted to help people. I didn’t know how, but I knew I wanted to help people.”

That passion extends beyond his professional life. Since earning his EMBA in 2017, Handy has dedicated himself to mentoring Kennesaw State students. He is active in the EMBA executive coaching program, which pairs EMBA students with professional mentors for the duration of the program, and regularly advises students in the entrepreneurship program on developing their projects.

Handy’s involvement with Kennesaw State also includes membership on the University’s Board of Trustees and the Coles College Advisory Board.

“Coming to Kennesaw State taught me more than I ever anticipated,” he said. “I’ve gotten great friends out of my experience with Kennesaw State, and I have gotten confidence in what I thought I knew intuitively. Now I know.”

Joe Handy

Handy’s visit also included a lunch meeting with University President Pamela Whitten; Aquarium CEO and Kennesaw State donor Mike Leven; Carmen Chubb, a current EMBA student and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms’ chief of staff; and finance major Kamari Davis. During the meeting, Whitten expressed her excitement in having accomplished alumni like Handy return to meet with students.

“By highlighting successful professionals, our students can envision what is possible,” Whitten said. “I have no doubt that today’s interaction between Joe and our students will inspire more than a few to think beyond their limits.”

Handy wrapped up his presentation with a question-and-answer session where he offered valuable advice to students about finding careers that align with their passions.

“Have a self-audit process,” he said. “Start thinking about what passions you have. Think about what you know about yourself and choose a career path that allows for you to do that. Because it won’t be work. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true.”

Patrick Harbin

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit