By Maria Saporta
It was fortuitous for Atlanta when Ángel Cabrera picked Georgia Tech to persue his doctorate as a Fulbright Scholar in 1991. As a Spanish scholar and engineer, Cabrera had his pick of any of the top engineering schools in the country.
Why did he pick Georgia Tech?
“I was trained as an engineer,” Cabrera said. “But I had an epiphany. Engineers should be aware of the broader implications of what we do. I wanted something more personal. And the only place that allowed an engineer to study psychology was Georgia Tech.”
So, Dr. Cabrera ended up moving to Atlanta for four years, meeting his wife Beth while they were both working on their doctorates, having his son Alex enroll at Tech five years ago and serving on Georgia Tech’s Advisory Council. Ultimately that led to Dr. Cabrera becoming its 12th president on Sept. 15, 2019.
Since then, President Cabrera has applied his study of engineering and psychology in his leadership at Georgia Tech – intersecting technology with its relationship to people.
“Science is all we’ve got,” Dr. Cabrera said in a face-to-face interview in his office on Jan. 6. “It’s places like Georgia Tech where we are going to see those solutions created. We are not just training engineers or investing in technology for technology’s sake. We are developing leaders who advance technology to improve the human condition. It’s personally meaningful to be part of that.”
That mission has become crystalized with the release of Georgia Tech’s 10-year strategic plan late last year, developed with input from 5,700 members of the Georgia Tech family in an “appreciative inquiry” exercise. The focus of appreciative inquiry is to celebrate and amplify what makes a place special and unique.
“My biggest excitement about returning to Georgia Tech is the conviction that we face, broader humanity faces, existential challenges – climate change, COVID…,” Dr. Cabrera said. “These existential challenges feed on global transportation and connectivity. And the solutions are going to come from technology.”
As evidence, Dr. Cabrera presented me with a sticker: “Science Works Y’all.” That sticker is given to every member of the Georgia Tech family when they go to get a saliva-based COVID test – a technology developed at the university and approved by the Federal Drug Administration to keep the pandemic to a minimum on campus.”
For Dr. Cabrera, it’s just a continuation of the origins of Georgia Tech, which was founded in 1885.
“Our motto is progress and service,” he said. “It’s always been there. Georgia Tech was founded as a tool to modernize the South.”
Today, Dr. Cabrera said Georgia Tech is working with many of the world’s largest companies – such as Microsoft and Google – in their quest for talent and research. He also credited the last two presidents of Georgia Tech – Wayne Clough and Bud Peterson – for the development of Tech Square in Midtown into an innovation hub – reflecting the district did not when he was as student in the early 1990s.
“We take it as part of our mission to be part of the economic development of Atlanta,” Dr. Cabrera said. “We are involved in promoting Atlanta. I love what has happened with how Georgia Tech has helped transform an entire innovation district in Midtown Atlanta.”
He also highlighted the unique Bio-Engineering Department, which belongs to both Georgia Tech and Emory University, a public and private institution respectively. The dean of the department wears lapel pins from both Georgia Tech and Emory University. “It is considered to be one of the best programs of bio-engineering programs in the country,” Dr. Cabrera said proudly.
Two areas of focus for Dr. Cabrera are accelerating Tech’s work in creating a more sustainable development environment and providing greater access to minorities to be part of the solutions.
Dr. Cabrera’s dedication to the environment is apparent every day when he rides his bicycle to work wearing his Georgia Tech gold helmet. He also is especially proud of the Kendeda Living Building, which is seeking to be certified as a restorative building that generates more energy and water than it uses. “The power of the Kendeda Building is not just what it is, but how it inspires you,” he said.
As for diversity, Dr. Cabrera just made two key promotions to show his commitment to creating a more inclusive Georgia Tech. Dr. Raheem Beyah, an African American from Atlanta, has been selected as the new dean of the College of Engineering, succeeding Steven McLaughlin, who was promoted to provost in October. And Charles Isbell, also an African American, is dean to the College of Computing, the largest college of computing in the United States.
“If we want technology to solve problems, we need all voices at the table,” Dr. Cabrera said. “As leaders of one of the leading technology universities in the world, we feel we have responsibility to open the doors for technology education to people of all backgrounds.”
It also furthers Atlanta’s profile as the cradle for the civil rights movement. Creating a more inclusive innovation economy will help with greater access to health, education and employment opportunity. The development of Enterprise Park along Northside Drive will help restitch Atlanta, Dr. Cabrera said.
“All great cities are anchored by world class research universities,” Dr. Cabrera said. “You cannot build a competitive hub in the 21st century without a world-class research university. We accept that. We take it to heart. We are global. We are also a bridge to the world.”
Dr. Cabrera, the first Spanish-born president of an American university, said he would love to stay at Georgia Tech long enough to implement the latest 10-year strategic plan.
“I liked Atlanta a lot,” Dr. Cabrera said. “I met my wife (who is from Alabama) here at Georgia Tech. Those were transformative years. We always kept coming back to Atlanta.”
In fact, the Cabreras bought a house in Virginia-Highlands – deciding not to live in the President’s residence, which he said is not in good enough shape for entertaining or living in.
“Beth and I used to go out on many dates in Virginia-Highlands. We would say: ‘This would be a fun place to live,’” Dr. Cabrera said. “Now we go for walks together in the neighborhood and along the BeltLine. It’s a wonderful place. It feels like home.”
Note to readers: This column is part of a regular series to introduce you to key metro Atlanta leaders.