It takes guts to quit a job. It takes guts and passion for one to leave a well-paying job and start an initiative aimed at helping people in the society.
That is exactly what Patrick Awuah, a former employee of Microsoft, did some fifteen years ago, and he has never regretted his move. After working and living in America for almost two decades, Mr Awuah returned to Ghana. At the time of leaving, he was a program manager at Microsoft, a title that came with a good package- millions. But when the bug bit him, the only thing that mattered to the millionaire was to change Africa starting with his home country. He set up Ashesi University in Accra, to educate young Africans.
“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,” Rising Africa wrote of the leader’s thoughts.
Ashesi University is based on a strong emphasis on leadership, which the founder feels lack in the region. It is also known for its innovative curriculum, and high-tech facilities stirring a new path in African education.
In his TED Global talk in 2007, emphasizes the importance of leadership in Africa, and it can have a positive impact on everyone in the society if only people took the time to practice what is required of them.
In his discourse, he cites an example of how a patient in Ghana died at a hospital because, for one reason or another, the doctors and nurses refused to administer the much-needed oxygen that they had. According to Awuah, this is the kind of leadership he is insisting should be addressed because “their decisions and actions matters, and when they fail, a nation literally suffers.”
“When I speak of leadership, am not talking about just political leaders, I’m talking about the elite. Those who’ve been trained, whose jobs it is to be the guardians of the society: the lawyers, the judges, the policemen, the doctors, the engineers, and the civil servants. Those are the leaders, and we need to train them right.”
His first-hand experience on the importance of leadership was when he was only 16 and had gone to the airport to meet his father. He was stopped by two soldiers wielding AK-47 assault weapons and was asked to “join a crowd of people that were running up and down this embankment. Why? Because the path I had taken was considered out of bounds. No sign to this effect,” he noted.
Refusing to join the team, he started arguing with the soldiers and just then, a pilot was also found on the wrong side of the ‘invisible’ rules. Being a pilot in his well-pressed uniform, the soldiers addressed him differently. Nevertheless, the pilot took their radio and talked to their boss and got everyone released. From this experience, Awuah learned several things: “Leadership matters – those men are following the orders of a superior officer. I learned something about courage – it was important not to look at those guns,” he explained to the audience.
One of the greatest lessons he learned was at Swarthmore College in the United States, although he did not take note of it until he started working at Microsoft Corporation. It is then that he realized that the education system had changed him. He now had the “ability to confront the 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.”
The turning point
But it was not until he became a parent that the thought of changing Africa’s narrative to a positive one for the sake of his children’s perception of the ‘dark’ continent as is in the day-to-day narrative, started haunting him.
Determined to contribute his quota towards the continent's development, he returned home, and found that the region still struggled with three things; corruption, weak institutions, and the people who run them – the leaders. In search of answers to the poor leadership, he noticed that Ghana’s educational system contributed to producing leaders that are unethical or unable to solve problems?
“It was the same learning by rote, from primary school through graduate school. 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. This is wrong.”
To address these challenges, Awuah started the institution of higher learning 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, which started with 30 students in 2002 in a rented building, now seats on a 100-acre land in Aburi, outside of the 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,” an optimistic founder told the audience at the TEDEx talk.
What is different at Ashesi University? It is the Honor Code. Students pledge, to be honest, and to hold each other accountable. They 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,” Awuah says. “While the Honor 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.”
There are many Patrick Awuah’s out there. They need to come back to Africa and forge the path that others can follow which will consequently transform the continent and contribute to the positive narrative that is slowly growing.
Image credit: www.ashesi.edu.