Southern Company President and CEO Chris Womack was awarded an honorary doctorate in philosophy from the Georgia Institute of Technology on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.
Calling it “the most important honor the university can confer to an individual,” Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera noted Womack’s “unyielding commitment and service to the university.”
“Chris is an extraordinary leader in the energy sector and his community,” Cabrera added. “He has enriched the state, region and country through civic leadership supporting and amplifying important work in fields such as energy and education and has been instrumental in nurturing the relationship between the Georgia Institute of Technology and Southern Company, providing transformative philanthropic support and life-changing opportunities for Georgia Tech students.”
After the degree ceremony, Womack delivered a rousing commencement speech to the graduating class of 2023 at Georgia Tech, emphasizing themes of resilience, the power of education and the responsibility to harness one's talents for the greater good.
“Thank you for welcoming me to celebrate and share this momentous occasion with you today,” Womack began. “To the faculty who keep this institution on the cutting edge of future endeavors. The staff who keep this monument to education and innovation running at a high performance level, thank you for your deep commitment to this university and these students.”
In his heartfelt address, Womack acknowledged the tumultuous period through which the students had pursued their degrees and how they persisted to reach this milestone. The backdrop of their educational journey was set against a global pandemic, economic uncertainties, social justice movements and the rapid rise of technologies such as generative AI. Despite these challenges, Womack applauded the students for remaining steadfast in their commitment to learning and moving forward.
Echoing the words of Sir Isaac Newton, Womack paid homage to the “giants” - the parents, families, friends and mentors - who supported these graduates along their journey, recognizing their invaluable contributions to the students’ successes.
In wielding the themes of his speech, Womack employed the metaphor of "power," harnessing the dual meaning of the term in context to both the graduates’ potential and Southern Company’s core business in the energy sector. He identified the graduates as a source of "Power for the Future," capable of significant contributions across various fields like science, engineering, education and entrepreneurship. Their gifts, he asserted, were the tools needed to solve critical global challenges from cancer to Alzheimer’s, thereby modifying the landscape of technological innovation.
Furthermore, Womack underlined the deep ties between Georgia Tech and Southern Company, reminding the audience of their shared interests in educating the leaders of tomorrow, fostering sustainable energy solutions and actively progressing civil rights in the spirit of the late Congressman John Lewis.
One of the thematic pillars of his speech was the call for graduates to engage with "good trouble," a term embraced by Congressman John Lewis that encourages righteous activism and transformative change. Womack inspired the students to become the next generation of leaders, capable and necessary in times of crisis. He challenged them to apply their education and intellect in the service of progress, echoing the spirit of individuals like Lewis, who understood the power of youth and students to effect change in society.
Womack closed his speech with three pieces of advice: to remember and use their inherent power wisely, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and to aim high and strive to do good in the world. He implored them to embrace diversity, engage in hard conversations, listen actively and expand their circles to foster a more integrated community.
Lastly, invoking the brilliance of both Michelangelo and Edison, he encouraged the graduates to dream big, remain curious and wield their power to explore new territories for the benefit of humanity.
“Let the profound words of Michelangelo echo in your hearts: ‘The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it,’” Womack said. “Allow these words to guide you on your journey, for they hold the key to understanding the transformative impact you can have.”
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