SFL Publisher Michelle Taylor Willis sits down with Joe Handy, President and COO of the Georgia Aquarium
“I wanted to be a criminal justice attorney,” recounts Joe Handy. “My friends would get into arguments, and I had to step in and settle things. I had the ability to convince people, well, kids at the time, to see things from the other person’s perspective.”
Handy is a native New Yorker, and if you talk to him long enough, you’ll hear that unmistakable accent. He laughs when I mention this. “Really?! he responds in disbelief, a hint of jubilation. “I didn’t think people could hear it!”
Growing up with a single mom in New York was tough. As a youngster, Handy lost his father. This disrupted his family unit, causing economic instability for him and his mother. “We moved around a lot based on my mother’s finances. I always had to make new friends, so I kinda made all these new neighborhoods my playground, like an adventure. My dad was still a major influence in my life, even though he wasn’t there, so I would imagine the advice he would give me, fashioned after TV dads from shows like ‘Make Room for Daddy’ and ‘The Cosby Show.’” To Handy, those characters were the epitome of what good dads looked like. (Although we have seen one of those TV dads take a turn for the worst, so there is that). He is grateful for having people like Bernie Marcus (cofounder of Home Depot), Mike Leven, and Michael Coles as strong mentors in his adult life. “Absent of having my biological father, I’ve had [these three] men in my life that have meant the world to me. Bernie is like a father; he’s shown me favor.” That’s huge, especially starting life as a precocious black kid growing up in Harlem. “I remember Bernie sharing a story with me and others once: he said he was never supposed to be here. And when I look at my life growing up as a kid in Harlem, I wasn’t either. My life could have gone a bunch of different ways.”
Handy found his way to the College of New Rochelle in upstate New York, where he graduated with honors in Liberal Arts and a concentration in Political Science. Yes, it could have been President Handy. He was even chosen to be a delegate in the 2004 Presidential election.
“I knew I always wanted to help people, I just didn’t know how.” So, when Bernie [Marcus] and his team visited the American Museum of Natural History as part of a listening tour of institutions to get a plan to launch the Georgia Aquarium, “They met with me, said Handy.” Bernie needed to know about how they opened the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and Handy was responsible for much of the logistics. He had many meetings with Bernie’s team, as he had worked in almost every department at the Museum, so he was the standout choice to give cumulative insight on bringing a state of the art institution to the Atlanta area. Through those conversations, Handy was asked to be a part of the opening team for the Georgia Aquarium. And so began his journey at the largest aquarium in the world at the time.
As the Director of Visitor Services, his initial role, he played an integral part in opening the institution that was truly a gift to the city and state. “We were very ambitious in our thoughts and what we wanted to deliver. Whale sharks is a perfect example. Our Ocean Voyager Gallery was designed specifically for whale sharks; there is nowhere in North America that you can see them. They were delicacies in Taiwan. We purchased them by the pound from a fisherman, and flew them from Taiwan on freight planes provided by UPS…that is what brown did for us!” He chuckles. “We built transport boxes that had their own life support systems, so we could make sure the animals had everything they needed for their journey to the U.S. It was like having an aquarium on a plane,” he remarked.
“On the plane?” I asked.
“On the plane.”
Delivering a successful opening of one of the world’s largest aquariums got him recognized, as Handy has served as the Director of Visitor Services, VP of Guest Experience, Sr. VP, Executive VP and COO, and most recently, President and COO. “I was able to watch this from the ground up. The Aquarium was a startup in the truest sense of the word. To be able to watch something that’s been an economic driver to the city and state, there’s a sense of pride involved, knowing that I was there, at the beginning.”
Handy has received resolutions recognizing his efforts with the 501(c)3, numerous awards, and is credited for contributing to the local and regional economies. He is active on the Baker Street Advisory Board, and has been a key component in the development around the conservatory. conservatory. The Civil Rights Museum and the World of Coca-Cola are two venues that have opened since the Georgia Aquarium was established.
“What’s next?” I ask Handy.
“Every five years, we do something big. In 2005, we opened. In 2010, it was the dolphins. 2015, the sea lions. And now, the Expansion 2020 project will tell the story of the sharks.” Expansion 2020 will allow visitors to have a new technological experience, and will include an addition of the new shark gallery. “Everybody thinks sharks are a bad thing. They’re not bad. This gallery will tell the story about sharks and how important they are to our ecosystem.”
Handy loves seeing more blacks in leadership, but knows that we have a long way to go. “We’ve made strides. I would compare it to a turtle on a fence. You know there’s no way that turtle made it by itself. We need to be more focused and deliberate about how we put more turtles on the fence.”
“How do we do that?” I ask.
Continuing to lean forward, all the while leaning back to pull people forward people that look like you.” He says this with a deliberate stare, seemingly into nowhere, but I think he’s peering into the future.
As for what’s next for Joe Handy, who knows? Handy said it’s about pushing past success to be significant, which I love. “I want to leave a legacy of ambition, risk-taking, and the idea of being disruptive, not destructive. I want people to look back at both who I was and what I did as a reference point that you can come from extremely humble beginnings and be the world’s best. Bernie didn’t start off with the wealth that he has, and I didn’t start off with the wealth that I have, but if you have tenacity, ambition, and fearlessness, you can create, establish, and be everything that you’re supposed to be. If I can be even a reference point for that, then I know that my life was worth something.”
“You could still be President,” I assert. “It’s not too late.” He smirks and confidently responds, “I am President. President of the Georgia Aquarium,” he laughs. “Nah. I’ll just keep feeding fish.”
For more information about the Georgia Aquarium or for tickets, visit GeorgiaAquarium.org.