Haas School of Business

First-Person

Patrick Awuah

Patrick Awuah
MBA 99

Founder, Ashesi University, Ghana

An Audacious Mission in Africa

Hear from Patrick

I held my breath and thought, ‘Oh dear.”

Patrick Awuah, MBA 99, is recalling a moment a decade ago when his dream of establishing Africa’s first private secular liberal arts college—Ashesi University—was being dashed. After months of seeking a hearing before Ghana’s college accreditation committee, he finally was presenting his case, and the chair was not impressed. In a country where large public universities and an emphasis on rote learning prevail, the authorities thought Awuah’s plan to build an Ivy League-type school was about as realistic as opening a Disneyland in the Sahara. It didn’t help that Awuah, 35 at the time, looked even younger.

And then, without skipping a beat, Awuah recalls, he laid out the vision he had been developing over the previous three years. He presented the financial plan, detailed the money he had raised, and warned that he could not afford to burn through any more cash waiting for approval. He pointed out where the campus would be built and explained the bigger picture: How change could only come to Africa if it had a new generation of entrepreneurial, ethical leaders—and that’s just what Ashesi would produce. He discussed how computer science and business majors need to study philosophy, why small classes are better suited to teach technical skills, and how the new university would require community service.

The commission chair sat back, digesting what he heard: It was a bold, hardheaded proposal free of any fanfare; the I’s were all dotted and the T’s all crossed. It was vintage Patrick Awuah. “We’ll let you try this experiment,” the chair announced.

This year Ashesi is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and in recognition of Awuah’s audacious vision and impressive accomplishments, Haas is awarding him the school’s Leading Through Innovation Award at its annual gala in San Francisco in November. “Patrick Awuah has gone beyond himself, questioning the status quo with a bold mission to develop a generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders with the courage to transform a continent,” says Dean Rich Lyons. “We couldn’t be more proud of his vision and tenacity.”

Reversing a Brain Drain

Ashesi means “beginnings” in the African language Twi, and the name mirrors the school’s ambitions. “We’re trying to train leaders of exceptional integrity, who can lead a renaissance in Africa,” Awuah says. “There have been times when it has seemed like Mission Impossible, but magic is happening.”

Six-hundred students are now enrolled at Ashesi, a stunning, new 100-acre campus perched on a hillside overlooking the capital city of Accra. It has lush green lawns and palm trees, covered walkways and light-filled classrooms, dormitories, and a library. The university also has a balanced budget, with tuition revenue covering operations, and has raised more than $10 million in philanthropic gifts.

Already its 420 graduates are taking on leadership roles. Within six months of completing school, almost 100 percent of Ashesi’s graduates are placed in jobs at international firms as well as in Ghanaian enterprises, nonprofits, and government. While an estimated one-third of African professionals have left Africa in the last 20 years, nearly all of Ashesi graduates stay on the continent.

“The students are on par with U.S. MBA students,” says former Haas Professor Jonathan Berk, now at Stanford, who recently visited Ashesi with a global study class traveling through Nigeria and Ghana. “We were asking employers afterward where they were hiring from, and they were saying Ashesi is the place we look to first.”

Berk and the students had a sit-down session with Awuah to discuss Ashesi. “I walked out of there, and I was blown away,” says Berk. “He had the idealism and the vision—and the ability to pull it off. He is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met.”

Awuah has won the Aspen Institute’s John P. McNulty Prize for extraordinary young leaders and the Microsoft Alumni Foundation’s Integral Fellow Award for making a difference in the lives of others. Today, however, he could still pass as an up-and-coming engineer at Microsoft, where he worked for almost a decade. At an interview during a Bay Area visit, he wore a crisp blue button-down shirt and sharply creased khakis. He was checking messages on two phones simultaneously, a Nokia for the United States and a Blackberry for Ghana, as he prepared for a meeting with Google executives.

Tech Beginnings

Growing up in Ghana, Awuah wanted, for a brief spell, to be an astronaut and then turned to engineering. His parents, who left rural villages to become members of a nascent middle class in Ghana, stressed education, and he left home in 1985 with $50 in his pocket and a full scholarship to Swarthmore College. Over the next four years its liberal arts education showed him the power of critical thinking and asking questions, a stark contrast to his prior schooling. After graduating he rose through the ranks to become a program manager at Microsoft and got married. He was settling into a comfortable neighborhood in Seattle, making a lucrative salary and loving his work. He had no interest in returning to Africa.

And then his son was born. “I knew I had to go back,” he says. He could no longer ignore Africa’s problems, because those problems would be bequeathed to his children. (His daughter was born six years later.) “I didn’t have the power to disown a continent.”

Awuah spent a couple of years considering how he could make a difference. He and his wife explored starting a software business, but he saw Africa trapped in a seemingly unending cycle: bad policy decisions caused poverty and strife, which gave rise to corruption and weak institutions, which fostered bad policy decisions. “It seemed like it came back to leadership,” he says. “Education seemed the best way to change that.”

Awuah’s focus on education coincided with a shift in Ghana toward democracy and free markets. The government, which had limited higher education to public institutions, opened the door to accrediting private universities. Awuah thought about how his experience at Swarthmore had transformed him. He saw how the existing universities were terribly overcrowded and how fossilized their education had become. Professors read the same lectures year after year; students wrote down what they were told. The only option for students who wanted a better education was to go abroad—and that was expensive. He saw demand for a new approach.

So in September 1997, Awuah enrolled in business school. “Going to Haas was to prepare me to understand how an organization works—it was my education so I could do what I wanted to do,” he says. Haas played—and continues to play—an important role in Ashesi’s growth. (See adjacent article.) A few years after Awuah graduated, Ashesi began offering classes.

Role Model

Yawa Hansen-Quao was among Ashesi’s first students. “I was looking to U.S. colleges, but when I heard about Ashesi, the vision resonated with me,” she writes in an email. “Ashesi was the best of both worlds, a quality curriculum based on the U.S. liberal arts core, blended with the African cultural context and leadership focus.” She became student body president, the first female to be elected president of a college-level student government organization in Ghana. Since graduating, she has started a successful travel business and founded a nonprofit that helps young women advance their careers.

“Patrick’s ability to walk away from Microsoft to start something he truly believed in really has been a reference point for me,” she says. “He lives the ideals Ashesi stands for and teaches.”

Awuah, meanwhile, shows no sign of slowing down. “It’s clear that we have to do more than we’re doing,” he says. Under a new 10-year plan, Ashesi’s goals include recruiting more students from Africa beyond Ghana; expanding academic program to include engineering and applied sciences, management and economics, and law and society; and planning for succession.

“There are two ways to measure leaders: What do they accomplish when they are at the helm, and what happens when they are no longer there,” he says. “I need to think about Ashesi when I am no longer around. How do we build systems so that we can operate forever?”

By Jonathan Rabinovitz

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