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Summer 2003 CalBusiness  
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Returning the Gift of Education
Two Berkeley MBAs found a new private university in Africa.


If there is anything you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

Those words, from the German writer Goethe, have a special meaning at the Haas School; they are the inspiration behind the name of Ashesi University in Ghana. And Ashesi, which means “beginning” in Akan, one of Ghana’s native languages, is one of the most intriguing startups by recent MBA graduates.

A groundbreaking university with a purpose as lofty as Goethe’s ideals, Ashesi is a private university offering undergraduate degrees in business and computer science that had its business beginnings as a student project at Haas—in the course work of two MBA 99ers, Patrick Awuah, a native Ghanaian, and Nina Marini.

Five years later, Ashesi is well on track to meet its not-so-modest goal of training Ghana’s future business leaders. In March 2002 Ashesi started teaching classes as the country’s first private non-denominational university.

The first class of students will graduate in 2005. They will also have a foundation in liberal arts—Awuah is a graduate of Swarthmore—and an emphasis on social responsibility.

“Ashesi is a dream come true,” says sophomore Abraham Nantogma, who says he may start a business when he graduates. “It is an affordable world-class education right here in Ghana.”

The student-staff ratio is far better than at Ghana’s state universities, he notes, where sometimes students have to stand outside a packed lecture hall and listen. “At Ashesi, the lecturers are able to pay attention to our needs.”

The Class of 2006—forty-four men and women, selected from more than 200 applicants—enrolled this February.

For Dodzi Anku, a freshman who had lived for 10 years in Singapore and Vancouver, Ashesi solved the dilemma of how to get a competitive degree in computer science in her home country. She says that in some courses in Ghana, students graduate in computer science without ever having booted up a computer.

In contrast Ashesi is wired. There is a computer laboratory, and terminals for student research and online access. “We have constant Internet access, and we are able to e-mail anyone from anywhere on the campus,” says Anku.

Ashesi currently employs 20 people full-time in the Ghanaian capital Accra and at its nonprofit parent, Ashesi Foundation in Seattle. On its academic advisory board are 30 experts, including 13 professors from Haas who help with the business curriculum, teaching methodology, and faculty training.

Even before Awuah enrolled at Haas, he had decided to create Ashesi. His epiphany came when he and his American wife, Rebecca, had their first child eight years ago, a son Nanayaw. They were settled in Seattle at the time.

“That made me reevaluate my commitment to Africa,” recalls Awuah, who is moving back to Ghana this summer with his family, which now includes a daughter, Efia. He knew that his children’s future would be entwined with Ghana. The fast-developing country has a dire need for education; the most accomplished students have typically left to study overseas, sometimes never to return.

Awuah had enrolled at Haas because he realized that a top-notch business education would help his enterprise become successful and self-sustaining. Now 38 and president of Ashesi University, he still recalls the enthusiasm when he arrived at Haas. “Every time I told someone about my idea, they said ‘That’s awesome!’ There was just this sense that it could be done,” says Awuah.

When his project was accepted for the International Business Development course, one of the few at any business school that offer on-site international consulting projects for MBA students, it so captivated fellow student Marini that she jumped on board. Raised in Japan, she had expected to work on a project in Asia. “But this classmate with a dream and vision—it was a discovery for me,” says Marini, 32 and vice president of Ashesi University.

With two others, they traveled to the sub-Saharan country to conduct market research. As the idea took off, they also developed a support network at Haas and with alumni. In addition, Awuah, a Microsoft program manager before he started his MBA, was able to raise some of the initial funding through former business associates.

Ashesi still has strong links with Haas. It has remained an ongoing client of the International Business Development course. And in late May, Dean Tom Campbell, who has taught and traveled extensively in Africa, offered a leadership seminar on constitutional law.

The accolades have been fast and furious. In 2002 Awuah was selected as an inaugural fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative, a program to nurture young leaders who are motivated, effective, values-based and community spirited.

Last summer external examiners from Haas and Swarthmore reviewed Ashesi’s coursework and gave it high marks. And after the National Accreditation Board of Ghana visited in October, the board’s deputy executive secretary hailed Ashesi as one of Ghana’s best new universities and an example to follow.

A final word from a sophomore, Regina Agyare, sums up project’s boldness, power, and magic. “I believe that coming to Ashesi was the best decision I ever made,” she says. “Every day I count my blessings and Ashesi keeps blessing me with knowledge, skills, and memorable experiences.”

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Patrick Awuah and Nina Marini
The founders: Patrick Awuah and Nina Marini, both MBAs 99, jointly founded Asheshi University.
Dr. Yaw Nyarko
Dr. Yaw Nyarko (second from left), a visiting economics professor from New York University, teaches an undergraduate microeconomics course at Asheshi University.
Asheshi’s computer lab
A teaching assistant is helping students with their microeconomics problem
in Asheshi’s computer lab.
 
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