Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Patrick Awuah, founder of Ashesi University and educating a new generation of African leaders

When my friend sent me an email asking if I wanted to attend a lunch with Patrick Awuah, I was ecstatic. I had met Patrick before, at the Harvard Business School African Business Conference in 2005 but being able to get this face-to-face time over a free meal was too good to pass up. Patrick Awuah is my hero. I tried to tell him when I saw him but I don't know if he understood the gravity of my statement. Patrick is the kind of person most of us must aspire to; an individual whose heart is set on Africa's development, has taken, continues to take steps to realise the African dream. What has Patrick done to deserve my awe? He started the Ashesi University, a model university in Accra which is setting the pace for educating the next generation of African leaders, entrepreneurs, etc.

Achimota alum (Akora) Patrick Awuah left the shores of Ghana in the 80's to pursue his undergraduate education at Swarthmore College. He loved the experience there so much that he broadcasts what he learnt and admired to everyone who will hear. He continued on to Microsoft, where he worked for many years. He completed an MBA at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. He used his connections and network built from these institutions to raise funds and resources to build a university in Ghana which he modelled after Swarthmore's liberal arts education. Ashesi (which means beginning in Twi) opened in late 2001 and has proceeded to graduate brilliant, entrepreneurial, hardworking students who are the cream of the crop and making waves in the various sectors they've entered.

At lunch, Patrick talked about how he once felt he wasn't going to return to Ghana to do anything. He had left Ghana in harsh times, fresh from the 1983 famine and a military government. One day, one of his bosses at Microsoft solicited funds for charity directed to some place in Africa and our man was touched. His mind was set on Africa again and after a series of conversations with people about the continent and its development, it struck him: what Africa really needs are smart educated, problem solving leaders. His dream was a Swarthmore type institution in Africa and through the hardwork of the team he assembled, Ashesi was born in 2001. Have you had your Eureka moment? Start building your team then.

I have met many Ashesi students and it's clear they are different from many other university students schooling in Africa. Some of them started business right out of school. Patrick told us the story of how one of the top students ended up working for an Orphanage near Accra after graduation. She became a full-time employee and is instilling some of the Ashesi tenets and principles she received in these kids. Ashesi students have gone on to win many awards and are impressing in the various firms that hired them. Though Ashesi still only has about 400 students in total, they are in high demand. He talked about how some of the Ashesi students started some community service at the Buduburam Refugee Camp that housed Liberians in Ghana. Even though the camp has been closed, the students are taking measures to continue their service in Liberia. They are taking on the personality of their president, Patrick Awuah.

Patrick was on an education panel when I met him at the HBS ABC. He understands the problems facing the university system in Ghana at the moment and is working to correct them through his institution. He has the chance to get it right from the start. Ashesi costs more than Legon and Tech (KNUST) but it provides financial aid for students who can't afford it. We don't have tax returns to judge financial need in Ghana but the Ashesi administration goes through the pains to award the aid appropriately. Most of the staff are female and the male-to-female student ratio is getting close to 50-50. He talked about the importance of small classes and satellite campuses. Ashesi's success has paved the way for more private universities in Ghana and Patrick disclosed that some people are interested in building similar 'Ashesis' all over Africa.

Patrick has received many plaudits for his work on Ashesi. His TED Talks video is famous and continues to generate a lot of buzz. Watch it here.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-KfKxCaDVA


Join me in celebrating a true African leader. If you get the chance to visit Ghana, visit the Ashesi campus near Labone. You can check out their website here
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