He was born in Accra, Ghana in 1965 and raised in that country’s chaos of the sixties and seventies. Ghana was under the rule of a military dictatorship whose policies made life difficult, to say the least. Finding food was a daily challenge for most families including his own. Imagine it being illegal for a business to make a profit – or to maintain product inventory of any significance. The country’s economy was crippled and its agricultural production suffered tremendously as the result of those policies – setting up a life with little hope of comfort, much less prosperity.
His fate was to be different, however. He had earned what would become a full scholarship to Swathmore College in Pennsylvania – in 1985 he moved to the U.S. Having double majored in economics and engineering, he graduated in 1989, and landed a job with Microsoft. There he became a program manager in the Business Systems Division – he also met Rebecca, a software testing engineer and the woman he would marry.
His first trip back to Ghana left him appalled at the conditions of his native country – he returned to the U.S. and his career – turning his back on Africa. It was an exciting time to be at Microsoft as they were at the beginning of their run of phenomenal growth – and it was also a financially rewarding time. Soon his life was impacted by something that money can’t buy – he and Rebecca became parents of a baby boy.
Having a child caused him to reflect on his life – to reflect on Africa. It became apparent to him that Africa was important to his child, to him, to the world for that matter. He became determined to do something – but what? He explored many options ranging from starting a software company to fighting local conditions such as lack of water, healthcare and unemployment. He discovered a thread common to every issue – people in authority who weren’t seeking solutions – people happy with the status quo – a total lack of leadership. It was that revelation that led to the answer he had been seeking and gave him his clarity of purpose.
Education – the answer was education. He came to believe that the key to making a positive impact in Africa would be molding new thinkers – new leaders. He shared his vision of challenging and changing the education system with Rebecca, who was instantly supportive. It was the turn of the century when he left his career with Microsoft – one that had made him a millionaire before the age of 30 – and moved to Ghana with his family.
His vision was to open a university which was built on a different model than the existing schools which were overcrowded and built on a methodology which encouraged rote learning. At the time only 5% of the population went to college and he knew they would become leaders in the country as a result. His university would be a liberal arts school where students were encouraged to think freely and creatively. Classes would have a small student to teacher ratio and there would be financial support for students in need. Importantly, his school would teach leadership and ethics in a country which was sorely lacking in both aspects.
Five years later, Ashesi University opened its doors with thirty students – in a rented building just outside of Accra, Ghana. That year, a team of Ashesi students won the Standard Chartered Bank Innovation Incubator competition. The first graduating class achieved 90% placement rate – (students getting jobs, entering graduate school or starting a business). By 2011, through donations and endowments, the school began building its new campus – a complex built by Africans which was completed on time and within budget. Ashesi University has earned a reputation as an innovative and effective institution of higher learning.
Few gave this project a chance of success – but succeed it has. However, that’s not what defines a fearless brand. Ashesi University has become so successful through the efforts of a fearless brand – its founder Patrick Awuah.
Fearless Brands know that dreams without action are meaningless
Patrick Awuah is a quiet and humble man – with a powerful vision and a fierce conviction in his purpose. Ashesi (which means beginnings in Twi, the native language of Ghana) is the embodiment of Awuah’s commitment to educating young people not just scholastically, but in critical thinking and ethical service. Those are the values he found to be missing when he began his exploration of how he could create a positive impact in his country. These are the attributes he believes are crucial for the nation-building that lies ahead.
In 2008, the student body initiated an honor code whereby students signed a pledge prior to testing that they would not cheat – and that they would report anyone discovered to be doing so. The concept was novel not just at a school – but within the country’s culture. The idea was so controversial that Awuah feared the government would pull the university’s accreditation. The students began a letter writing campaign, the government threat was thwarted and the honor code continues to this day.
It may take years for the full impact of Patrick Awuah’s vision to have significant impact in Ghana. However, his efforts have yielded powerful results already. Ashesi University has become a model for other universities throughout Africa – and the world. Critical thinking and ethical standards have become the norm for students. Those traits are slowly – but deliberately – infiltrating the government, business and the public.
The list of awards and honors bestowed upon Patrick Awuah is long and impressive – but his satisfaction comes from the impact he is making. His satisfaction comes from the hope and the change that is occurring. He embraces that impact yet realizes there is still a long road ahead.
When it comes to building your fearless brand, there are two key things to learn from Patrick Awuah:
Dreams require action to be meaningful – Awuah’s dream of having a positive impact on Africa could have quickly fizzled when he his initial ideas didn’t seem viable. Rather than take the attitude “Well, I tried” – he became more determined to find a solution. Embrace your dreams, pursue your dreams, don’t quit before the miracle happens.
Be in it for the long-term – There were any number of times that Patrick Awuah could have ‘thrown in the towel’. He realizes that his vision is a long-term proposition and he is fully committed. Building your brand is a long-term proposition as well – understand that and be committed.
Not every fearless brand is going to have the far-reaching impact of a Patrick Awuah. When you embrace your purpose and leverage your talents – the value you create will have tremendous impact on those you serve – as well as yourself.