Success Story from Ghana: Patrick Awuah, Founder of Ashesi University

UPDATED January 5, 2016. I was first ‘introduced’ to Mr. Awuah through a snapshot of his life presented in William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden (2007), a book my students read in their first semester of a multi-year academic service learning program called Periclean Scholars, for which I serve as the faculty adviser. The brief story, on pages 306-307, revealed that Mr. Awuah secured a scholarship to Swarthmore University in the USA, completed a dual degree in engineering and economics in 1989 and earned a position with Microsoft upon graduation (1989-1997). Seven years later Mr. Awuah was a millionaire. Mr. Awuah returned to Ghana in 1997 intent on establishing an excellent institute of higher education. A few years later he founded Ashesi University, a liberal arts undergraduate institution with a focus on ethical leadership.

In 1999, Mr. Awuah completed an MBA at UC-Berkeley, where he found like-minded others interested in helping him to conduct surveys to determine whether a new university was needed in Ghana. Before Ashesi opened its doors on a temporary basis in 2002, years of research had gone into the project, from a feasibility study conducted with UC-Berkeley students in 1998 to the establishment of a Board of Trustees for the Ashesi Foundation in 1999. By 2009 construction of a permanent campus was underway.

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Awuah in person in February 2014. It was at this time that he was awarded the Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Other indicators of Mr. Awuah’s effective aid have included Ashesi being ranked as one of the top 10 Most Respected Companies in Ghana and Awuah the fourth Most Respected CEO in Ghana. Mr. Awuah’s talk “How to Educate Leaders? Liberal Arts” was featured on TED Global in June 2007 and his dream for higher education in Ghana was featured on BBC news Africa in October 2011. He was the subject of a feature on CNN’s African Voices in May 2013 and was recognized at WISE the Qatar Foundation’s World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar in November 2014. Mr. Awuah is an Integral Fellow finalist and an Aspen Global Fellow. In 2015, Mr. Awuah won the extremely prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also known as the ‘genius award,’ for his work with Ashesi.

Ashesi is thriving. In August 2015, a new 96-bed student dormitory was completed. The facility won the first ever Ghana Construction Award for high quality standards under the theme, “Celebrating Excellence for National Development.” In late 2015, Ashesi received a $700,000 grant from USAID American Schools and Hospitals Abroad for equipment for its engineering classrooms and laboratories. In December 2015, the Ashesi Foundation raised $500,000 in donations in one month which enabled it to receive an impressive 2 to 1 matching grant of one million dollars from The MasterCard Foundation.

Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why has Patrick Awuah (and Ashesi) been so successful?

Some key characteristics come to mind:

VISION/ DEFINITENESS OF PURPOSE: Mr. Awuah, like Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim, saw a need in his country, and Africa more generally, for ethical leadership, and generated a plan to transform his idea into a reality.

Patrick Awuah recalled the words often attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from a loose translation of his 1835 work Faust: If there is anything you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” The words became the inspiration behind his university’s name, Ashesi, which means “beginning” in Fante, an Akan dialect spoken in southern Ghana. The name also refers to the new beginning for each student that enters the university.

PLANNING AHEAD/ RESEARCH-BASED GIVING: A well-organized plan, not luck, is the likely starting point for success.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Having grown up in Ghana, Mr. Awuah understood how to get things done in the country when he returned.

PARTNERSHIPS/COLLABORATION: Like other successful people Mr. Awuah recognized the need to ally himself with other superior minds rather than move forth as a “lone wolf’’ (Napoleon Hill, 2011, Outwitting the Devil, page 54). Mr. Awuah sought partners and investors at the highest levels for his project. Within a year of the permanent campus’s completion in 2011, the MasterCard Foundation was providing $13 million in scholarships to Ashesi students from nearly a dozen African counties.

A WILLINGNESS TO GIVE: Many people that have made a great deal of personal wealth have not thought about giving it away. Yet development expert and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen notes that those who give are more likely to be personally fulfilled than those who do not and that happiness and personal fulfillment should be given greater emphasis when assessing developing countries’ well-being.

By Heidi G. Frontani

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