Patrick Awuah: the man with just US$50 and a vision to transform education

Patrick Awuah left Ghana in 1985 with just US$50 in his pocket and a full scholarship to Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, the United States.

When he came back a decade and a half later, quitting a lucrative job with Microsoft, with ideas to set up a world class educational institution that will train the future leaders of the country, he did not foresee the challenges he met in establishing Ashesi University.

With determination and perseverance, Mr. Awuah, who started with 30 students in a rented property in Labone, Accra, in 2002, now has over a 1,000 students under his care in Brekuso, an hour’s drive from Accra, in the Eastern Region.

Having gained a reputation for innovation and quality education in Ghana, Ashesi has united traditional design, modern technology and environmental best practices – creating an inspiring base for young Africans from diverse backgrounds to live, collaborate and study together for generations to come.

Mr. Awuah was recently presented the prestigious WISE Prize for Education. Sheikha Mozabint Nasser, Chairperson of Qatar Foundation, presented the Prize to Mr. Awuah at the opening plenary session of the eighth World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar, before an audience of 2,000 participants from 100 countries.

The WISE Prize for Education is the first distinction of its kind to recognize an individual or a team of up to six people for an outstanding, world-class contribution to education. The Laureate receives the WISE Prize for Education gold medal, and US$500,000.

Stavros N. Yiannouka, the CEO of WISE said: “I am pleased to welcome Patrick Awuah as the sixth WISE Prize for Education Laureate. He joins a distinguished group of individuals who share a passion for empowerment through education. The WISE Prize Laureates have recognized needs that challenged them to action. Each has blazed a path in engaging and enrolling others in a vision.

Patrick Awuah’s story is unique in his awakening to the role of renewed ethical leadership in social transformation, particularly in Africa. Ashesi University College, under his guidance, builds varied contemporary curricula on the pillars of liberal arts.

He recognized that the tools for acquiring and interpreting knowledge are at least as important as the knowledge itself. In placing leadership at the core of his commitment, Patrick Awuah stands as a model for all of us who are dedicated to empowerment through education.”

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Patrick Awuah is well-known for his dedication to supporting education in Ghana and across Africa. Every Ashesi University College graduate has found quality employment, and almost all have remained in Africa, where many have started much-needed businesses. Patrick Awuah’s innovation in higher education is not only empowering students; it also has the potential to transform Ghana and other African nations by developing a new generation of leaders and entrepreneurs.

After leaving Ghana in 1985 to the United States to study, he benefited from the liberal arts education from Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, which showed him the power of critical thinking, a stark contrast to his prior schooling.

After graduating, Patrick Awuah had a very successful career at Microsoft where he spearheaded design for dial-up Internet access. Keen to make a difference in his own country, he returned to Ghana, intending to start a software company.

Arriving back in Ghana, Patrick Awuah quickly understood that fostering ethical leadership would be key to building a generation that is able to bring positive change in Africa. He decided to go back to study, this time to the University of California, Berkeley, to understand what it takes to start a university that would foster leadership and integrity.

Patrick Awuah said: “I decided to create a new university in Ghana not because of a lack of universities in my country, but a lack of universities teaching 21st century skills. There was too much emphasis on rote learning and memorization, much less on critical or independent thinking, ethics or collaboration. I decided to open a university that would offer young Ghanaians and Africans the opportunity to excel and become problem solvers – the next leaders of Africa.”

Ashesi University College offers four-year bachelor degrees in engineering, business administration, computer science and management information systems. The degree is based upon an interdisciplinary curriculum with a continual emphasis on leadership, ethics and entrepreneurship. Before graduating, all students engage in community service.

Ashesi University College places an emphasis on cultural, economic, and gender diversity with 50percent of the students on full or partial scholarships. Half of students are women and over 20 countries are represented on the campus. Additionally, in 2008, Ashesi University College students established an honor code, holding themselves responsible for ethical behavior, the first of its kind in African universities.

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On receiving the WISE Prize, Patrick Awuah said: “I am honored to receive the WISE Prize for Education. This is a crucial moment for Africa – today, one out of six people on earth live in Africa, and this is set to rise to one in four by 2050. We urgently need to boost the education system in Africa to ensure we can tap into this shift to strengthen the continent.

Winning the WISE Prize will support the work we are already doing at Ashesi University College to inspire and educate, and build a community of people who can navigate the complexities of Africa’s growth and set an example for the rest of the world.”

He has won many prestigious international awards including the MacArthur Fellowship; the McNulty Prize; and Membership of the Order of the Volta — one of Ghana’s highest awards, given to individuals who exemplify the ideal of service to the country. In 2015, Patrick was named one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune, and received the Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award, given to UC Berkeley alumni with distinguished records of service to their countries.

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.

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. In the same survey, Patrick Awuah was named the 4th Most Respected CEO in Ghana.

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