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Ghanaian millionaire quits Microsoft to build university in Ghana

As some Africans continue to seek “greener pastures” abroad, a rare few like Patrick Awuah are sacrificing that to make a difference by returning home.

Following close to two decades in the United States, Mr Awuah resigned from his high earned job as a program manager at Microsoft. He moved to Ghana to set up the Ashesi University in Accra to educate young Africans saying “If the current leadership core was educated a certain way, if they were problem solvers, if they had deep compassion for society, we would be in a different place.” Stirring a new path in African education, Ashesi University is known today for its innovative curriculum, high tech facilities, and strong emphasis on leadership.

In his TED Global talk in 2007, Patrick Awuah explained his call to educate Africa’s future leaders, and why he believes this is very important. In his youth, he learnt rather early that leadership and courage matter. During his education abroad which begun at Swarthmore College in the United States, Patrick said “The faculty there didn’t want us to memorise information and repeat back to them as I was used to back in Ghana. They wanted us to think critically. They wanted us to be analytical. They wanted us to be concerned about social issues.” Yet, in spite of his epiphany at Swarthmore, it wasn’t until he started working at Microsoft Corporation that he realised it. “I was part of this team, this thinking, learning team whose job it was to design and implement new software that created value in the world…. And I realised just what had happened to me at Swarthmore … The ability to confront problem, complex problems, and to design solutions to those problems. The ability to create is the most empowering thing that can happen to an individual.”

On his return to Ghana 14 years ago, he found out that for every problem three things kept coming up; corruption, weak institutions, and leadership. Patrick then raised two questions: where are these leaders coming from and why are leaders failing to solve problems? Searching for answers, he scanned the country’s educational system and realised that nothing had changed during his time away. There was very little emphasis on ethics and the typical graduate from a university in Ghana has a stronger sense of entitlement than a sense of responsibility. His resolve to address this problem resulted in the conception and birth of Ashesi University, an institution launched to develop young African leaders. “Every society must be very intentional about educating its leaders … so this is what I’m doing now. I’m trying to bring the experience I had at Swarthmore to Africa. What Ashesi University is trying to do, is to train a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders. We’re trying to train leaders of exceptional integrity, who have the ability to confront the complex problems, ask the right questions, and come up with workable solutions.”

Ashesi started with 30 students in 2002 in a rented building. Today the university campus is set on a 100 acre land near Aburi, an hour’s drive from Ghana’s capital, Accra, with over 500 students. The academic curriculum is a blend of Liberal arts and Sciences. “we’re going to educate computer science students who’ve also done philosophy, and leadership, and ethics … we’re going to educate business majors who’ve studied literature and have also done computer programming because we think that broad perspectives are important,” a bullish Patrick told the audience at the TEDEx talk.

The university has an Honour Code, where the students pledge to be honest and to hold each other accountable. The students of Ashesi University take ownership of their ethical posture on campus. “This is a huge break from the norm in most African universities, where corrupt practices run free, ”Patrick says. “While the Honour Code may constitute a reach for a perfect society, which is unachievable, we cannot achieve perfection, but if we reach for it, we can achieve excellence.”

If more exceptionally minded and critical thinking individuals like Patrick Awuah would rise to the occasion of transforming Africa, the continent will make great strides in ridding itself off corruption, weak institutions, and most importantly unethical and inefficient leaders.

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