That is a picture of the graduate from Swarthmore College sitting on the front row of his class – and literally he has stayed there, sitting on the front row of his generation.
Fortune Magazine has named the founding president of Ashesi University among 50 of the World’s Greatest Leaders. He was named as the 4th most respected CEO in Ghana in 2012. Dr. Patrick Awuah Jnr. has at least 25 awards, affiliations and acclaimed mentions.
If you want to spark a world war over Ashesi’s place in Ghana’s education system, you would not find Ashesi – because it is not in this world.
And while this may bother on fawning flattery, it ain’t pride if you can back it up, to paraphrase Muhammed Ali’s words.
In 2012, Ashesi University was ranked as one of the top ten Most Respected Companies in Ghana, and was the first educational institution to win the award.
Nonetheless, Dr. Patrick Awuah described his achievement as a “joint community effort” – not sure who is called by that name.
His tiny voice is, if you like, a physiological twin of his tiny ego. These two work with great efficiency in masking his achievements in humble words.
He sounded too unwilling to glorify the guts needed in setting up a university that now packages graduates in gowns and great ideas.
Sitting in a simple office with Joy FM Drive Time host Lexis Bill, Dr. Patrick Awuah Jnr. rolled back the years to talk about growing up, stepping up and staying up as a record-setting educational innovator.
Patrick Awuah was the kid you would find in the corner of the class, holed up and engrossed in something generally disinteresting.
“I was a shy kid” “very focused on academics, “I was always tinkering around” “the first two years of boarding school, I wouldn’t call fun- there was a lot of bullying”.
An Accra upbringing, an Association International schooling and Achimota School rounded up his experience with education in Ghana.
He swapped Ghana for Swarthmore College in US where he read engineering. Thanks to an American education system that rewards creativity not a cramming ability to reproduce notes, Awuah says he excelled.
He recalled that in his engineering class, he designed a circuit that didn’t really follow the lesson instructions in class. His curious but fascinated lecturer gave him A.
Feats like this didn’t make it hard for Microsoft to come calling after he graduated in 1989. The Ashesi founder recalled that he was interviewed for 10 hours from 8am to 6pm.
The next day, the job was his. He remembers the work environment at Microsoft was constant creativity and long hours of dedication.
When he finally relocated to Ghana after 8 years as a Programs Manager at Microsoft, his initial plan was to set up a software company. But a good look at the human capital drained the idea out of him.
“What I found out was that Computer science education at the time, they did not use computers. Students were studying a lot of theory, but they were not doing a lot of praticals…it seemed to me that the human capital was not prepared well enough and that if I attempted to set up a software company it would not be successful…”
If he didn’t have software nerds, he would create a university that produced such quality. He would multiply himself into several hundreds and maybe thousands. If he couldn’t build a software company, he would train maybe a 1000 who can build maybe a 1000 such companies.
The engineer set out to work. He enrolled in an MBA program at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 1997 to learn how organizations function, how his Ashesi organization would function. Years after building his own circuit board that would not follow the rules, he was up building another educational circuit board that would not follow the rules.
It would be expensive but it would be for the poor – with talent. It would be a paradise for questioning students but a hell for lovers of learn-by-rote. It would be a convention to be unconventional. Moving from Ashesi into the world of work was to be as straightforward as opening your bedroom door.
It began in 2002 at Labone in Accra with 30 students in a rented building. By the time they left Labone to the present site, Patrick Awuah told Lexis that he had rented at least 10 buildings.
Funding was hard to come by. Patrick Awuah had to literally tell his friends in the US: “Look, give me money for a not-for-profit university which is modeled on Harvard but no, you won’t and can’t have shares”.
Not many in Ghana will buy into this offer but his colleagues at Microsoft did. They donated to his foundation. After a gentle push, together with his $300,000 seed money for Ashesi was sown. With a university that has had a 100% employment rate for its graduates, it is easy to see that this seed was an oak tree seed.
“To be honest with you it took a little bit of naivety to get started. I did not know how hard it was going to be. If I had, I might not have started it…and that’s the truth” he confessed.
“The site for Ashesi’s permanent campus was originally going to be used for real estate development. However upon meeting Ashesi’s founding team and hearing their vision, the Chief of Berekuso, Nana Oteng Korankye II, decided the university would be more impactful”.
“The overwhelming support by the Chief and Elders, was a major factor in the decision to make Berekuso a permanent home for Ashesi. The chief now attends every Ashesi Commencement as a Guest of Honour,” a statement on the school’s facebook page reads.
“I think you just have to have this incredible confidence”, he said.
And then there was a strong perception that Ashesi was for siblings of the nouveau riche, although about 6 out of 10 students are on scholarship and 3 out of 10 pay absolutely nothing.
Despite a light-hearted 30 minutes interview on Joy FM, Dr. Patrick Awuah Jnr heart ache when the topic of his greatest headache came up – accreditation.
Ashesi is still not a fully fledged university. Like a curious professor who asked him how he designed his circuit, curious administrators keep asking him how he designed his curriculum – only they appear less fascinated.
Dr. Patrick Awuah Jnr. had the air of an exasperated math geek bogged down for hours by a quantitative question.
“I have been dealing with it [accreditation] for 16 years now. I can’t remember a meeting with accreditation where I have left the meeting feeling encouraged and optimistic. It is always adversarial. I wish that would stop”.
While he tried to dredge his voice of silty frustrations, he was hardly successful.
“We have had US universities come here and every single one of those interactions is very positive…people are just amazed at what we have done here. And then there are the Accreditation guys. When there come here it is all negative, it is all hostile, it is all why are you doing it this way…
“You have to have a long conversation about why you need to keep the way you doing it the eventually you pass the accreditation review but after months of back and forth”.
He pointed out that in his encounters with the National Accreditation Board, “it is not only about quality, [but] there is an underlining tone of hostility”. Dr. Patrick Awuah Jnr must have remembered his 1980 bullies at Achimota.
Weeks after the interview, the Education Ministry has announced that Ashesi would receive its presidential charter by the end of 2016. It means the university will now award its own degrees.
Is it easier for Patrick to build a university than to be romantic?
When Lexis Bills got to arguably his favourite subject, romance and relationships, Patrick Awuah appeared to have entered a pretty clueless class.
He met his wife, Rebecca, while she worked at Microsoft as a Software Test Engineer at Microsoft, in Seattle,WA, in the U.S. His answers on how romantic he was, were bumpy, hesitant and sometimes confusingly funny.
He said he did the “standard” things, flowers, chocolate and a nice dinner. Lexis marked him down. Romance is one emotional circuit he struggles to build.
But Patrick adores Rebecca and credits her confidence in him as the source of the reality of Ashesi. “She is actually the reason Ashesi exists because she agreed for me to leave Microsoft to come to this”.
‘Ashesi’ means ‘begining’ in Twi. It is the only university with a local name and in a fit of irony, it was set up by a Ghanaian with a highly polished American accent.
When Lexis began a kind of roll call of Ashesi and Partick Awuah’s achievements. He stopped tired after some 5 accolades. There were at least 20 more to mention.
But if you want to continue where Lexis Bill left off… you are welcome….
Patrick served on the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid (ACVFA) of the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2010 to 2016. He is a Fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative of the Aspen Global Leadership Network; a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; and a member of the Tau Beta Pi honor society for excellence in engineering.
Summary of Affiliations and Awards:
· Fellow of the African Leadership Initiative—Aspen Global Leadership Network
· Member, US Council of Foreign Relations
· Member: Tau Beta Pi Honor Society for Excellence in Engineering.
· Member, TED Fellows Program: 2007 TED/Global, 2009 TED Fellow
· Awarded Membership of the Order of the Volta by his Excellency
President J.A. Kufuor, Ghana in 2007
· Ghana Web, 2005 Person of the Year
· Young Global Leader, 2007, World Economic Forum
· Honorary Doctor of Laws, Swarthmore College in 2004
· Winner, 2009 Microsoft Alumni Foundation “Integral Fellow” award
· Winner, John P. McNulty Prize 2009, Aspen Institute
· Ghana’s 8th Most Respected CEO, 2010 (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
· Winner, Educational Development, Millennium Excellence Awards 2010, Ghana
· Member, Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid (ACVFA) of the U.S. Agency for International Development, March 2010 – March 2016
· Ghana’s 4th Most Respected CEO, 2012 (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
· Leading Through Innovation Award, University of California, Berkeley,
Haas School of Business, 2012
· Honorary Doctor of Laws, Babson College, 2013
· Paul Harris Fellow, The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International, 2013
· Elon Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership, Elon University, 2014
· Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, 2014
· 50 Greatest Leaders in 2015, Fortune Magazine, 2015
· 2015 Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award, University of California, Berkeley, 2015
Click photos to see more.