Awuah: From Microsoft to Ghana
With so many Americans working from home now and especially so during the 2020 health emergency, we should thank one of the people, who was instrumental in making Internet Communications possible, Patrick Awuah, Jr.
The Story of Patrick Awuah, Jr.
Patrick Awuah, Jr. can be considered one of the Pioneers of Internet Communications. He was one of the original Microsoft Team Members in 1988 who developed the first Dial Up Applications. He left all of that and his life as an American multi-millionaire before the age of 30 and returned to his home in Ghana to found Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana. Here are his words and here is his story…
Born and raised in Accra, Ghana, Patrick Awuah, Jr. was a standout as a young student in Ghana. He attended the Achimota School in Accra, where he was a house prefect. His outstanding performance as a student garnered him an opportunity in America.
From Ghana to America
In 1985, Ghana was economically crippled under a military dictatorship. Swarthmore College accepted Awuah on a near-full scholarship, requiring that he pay just $400. But his family couldn’t afford it, prompting the U.S. Embassy—the same embassy that today calls him for advice—to initially reject his application for a visa. Swarthmore fixed the problem by giving him a full scholarship. He double-majored—economics and engineering—landed a job working for Bill Gates.
Patrick worked as a Program Manager for Microsoft where, among other things, he spearheaded the development of dial-up internet working technologies and gained a reputation for bringing difficult projects to completion. It was also at Microsoft that he met his wife, Rebecca, who worked at Microsoft as a software testing engineer.
Building a Life and Career
Patrick and Rebecca were settled in Seattle and had built a successful careers with Patrick as a Microsoft executive and they started a family. More than a decade of success at Microsoft left Patrick a wealthy young man. He was a multi-millionaire before he had even turned 30 years old.
Patrick had put Ghana behind him. He recounts how, returning to his home country for a visit for the first time in more than five years, “I was extremely disillusioned. Nothing worked. I came back to the U.S. and told my colleagues at Microsoft, that I would never return to Africa to live.
Patrick speaks of his early days of and his view of Ghana in this way: “I grew up during Ghana’s chaotic military dictatorship. The economy was so dysfunctional that finding food was a daily challenge for most families, including mine. It was illegal at one point for businesses to make a profit, or even to have a substantial inventory of goods. The result: huge shortages of goods, and an economy with no buffer against declines in agricultural output.
Change of Heart
“When I earned a scholarship to Swarthmore College, a new way of questioning, developing, and testing ideas was revealed to me. I majored in engineering, but I was also challenged and enriched by my liberal arts classes. When I was recruited to work at Microsoft, I turned my back on Africa.”
However, with the eruption of crises in Rwanda and Sudan, Patrick’s vow to never return to Africa was shaken. One of the Vice Presidents at Microsoft circulated a mailer soliciting support for a grassroots drive to do something for Rwanda. Awuah commented: “I remember feeling extremely guilty because here was an American, not an African, who was doing something about a crisis that I had not even thought to do.”
Around the same time, their first child was born, triggering Patrick’s latent restlessness. “When I looked for the first time into my son’s eyes, I realized I had been extremely arrogant to think that I had within me the power to disown a continent. Africa will matter to my children, to the way they see themselves; the way the world sees them.” He began to think about going back to Ghana.
“When my first child was born in Seattle, I understood that Africa mattered—to me, to my son, and to the world. But like so many others who wish to create progress in Africa, I found that my first question was “where should I begin?”.
But what could his contribution be?
Given his professional background, Patrick originally thought something in the IT space could potentially be catalytic, and allow him to make a real contribution to Africa. The more he looked at the society, however, the less convinced he was.
“I realized from many conversations with friends and family that the central problem in Ghana was one of leadership. Many aspects of society were not functioning well – neighborhoods were without water, there was high unemployment, slums were growing, hospitals were dysfunctional – and if you really drilled down to what lay behind this, it was a lack of leadership, and in some cases plain corruption. Underlying every challenge were people in positions of responsibility who were neither fixing problems nor creating solutions.” -Patrick Awuah, Jr.
Recognizing the Need
There was, Patrick believed, a causal relationship between Ghana’s traditional approach to education, and poor leadership at all levels in the country. He saw a stark contrast between his U.S. college experience, which stressed critical thinking and problem solving, and the rote learning common throughout Ghana’s educational system, where students learn a narrow subject matter and are tested on recall.
Still, it took some time before he felt ready to act. “It’s hard to leave a good job and go off and do something this risky,” he says.
Crucial Support from Rebecca
Awuah sought the advice of his wife, who fully supported Patrick’s desire to return to Africa to make a difference to others. In an interview, his wife commented: “That was a transition period for us, becoming parents,” she said in an interview conducted from her office. “For Patrick, the real strong realization was that the negative image of what’s going on in Africa influences the self-perception of everyone of African descent. He felt that in addition to doing something for his country—by trying to educate people to be better leaders and solve some of the big problems we have in Africa—that improvement here would also influence the self-perception of the diaspora.”
Partly, the tipping point for Patrick came through the Aspen Fellowship; specifically a conversation around an Ursula K. Le Guin reading entitled The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Patrick’s dream of making a difference in Ghana meant leaving a comfortable and wonderful life – the metaphorical Omelas – for the unknown. He realized, Patrick says, that he needed to commit: “Even though we don’t know what the end of the story could be, we need to be writing the story.” He felt he was “stalling because of fear of failure. But if I didn’t try, I would have failed anyway so – why not try?”
“Even though we don’t know what the end of the story could be, we need to be writing the story.”
Deciding to Act
So Patrick left Microsoft and enrolled at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Demonstrating his appreciation for the power of networks, Patrick put his desire to begin a university in Ghana forward as a research project, thus leveraging the brain trust in his class. This also resulted in a long-term collaboration with one of his MBA colleagues becoming his business partner. In 1998, he and a team of friends traveled to Ghana to complete a feasibility study on creating a private university. He wrote a business plan for his M.B.A. thesis, a plan to start a private, nonprofit university, called Ashesi, a name that means “beginning, University. His classmate, Nina Marini, co-founded the school with him. She’s now a trustee.
From America to Ghana
I realized I was stalling because of fear of failure. But if I didn’t try, I would have failed anyway. -Patrick Awuah, Jr.
Importantly, his sojourn at Berkeley also helped him create a framework for building a liberal arts university in an environment without a history of such institutions. Along with Patrick’s alma mater Swarthmore, UC Berkeley supported the project by co-designing a curriculum that combined elements of a traditional liberal arts college with technical majors.
“We ended up naming this university Ashesi, which means beginning, because the day that I realized I was committed to this I said to myself, ‘This is the beginning.’ ” -Patrick Awuah, Jr.
Awuah’s path is a success story by any measure and their life really did change dramatically with the birth of their first child, Nanayaw, recounts Rebecca Awuah, who now teaches calculus at Ashesi. They also have a 7-year-old daughter, Efia. Their eventual move back to Patrick’s birthplace, Accra in Ghana, required significant adjustment for Patrick and Rebecca and their two children. But, their move and drive resulted in one of the most revered universities in Ghana and the world…
After living in the United States for two decades, Awuah returned to his native Ghana and set up Ashesi University in Accra. Patrick felt at heart the need to redefine the education system in Ghana, which appeared to him as only relying on studying “things by heart” and not spending sufficient time on building up critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Therefore, he felt that if he could get engaged in education and really focus on developing ethical compassionate leaders it would have a significant long-term impact in Ghana. He began the college with only about 30 students but currently has more than 1200.
Ashesi: Intentional Education
“I believe that every society must be intentional about educating its leaders.” -Patrick Awuah, Jr.
Founded in 2001, his Ashesi University is already charting a new course in African education, with its high-tech facilities, innovative academic program and emphasis on leadership. It seems more than fitting that ashesi means “beginning” in Akan, one of Ghana’s native languages.
With generous support and input from Swarthmore, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington, Ashesi designed a curriculum that combined elements of a traditional liberal arts college with world-class majors in business and technology—very different from the African norm.
To fight corruption, the university created a mandatory four-year leadership seminar series designed to instill ethics and a commitment to the greater good.
One early supporter wondered if a vocational school might be more “appropriate” for Africa. But Africa’s business leaders told the university that what they urgently needed, and could not find, were trustworthy employees who could “think outside the box,” who could handle complex, real-world problems, and who had strong leadership and communication skills. In response, Ashesi’s business and computer science classes emphasize analytics and critical thinking, and uses community service and in-depth senior projects to challenge students to address local complexities.
Hope, Hard Work and Dreams
Awuah’s accomplishments are many. He holds bachelor degrees in Engineering and Economics from Swarthmore College; an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business; and honorary doctorates from Swarthmore College, Babson College, and the University of Waterloo and he is the founder and president of Ashesi University. In addition, Patrick is the recipient of numerous awards, American and international, which are listed at the end of this bio.
Patrick Awuah came to America with a scholarship and bettered his life’s prospects through hard work, education and his innate intelligence. His efforts, working side by side with Bill Gates for a decade, allowed him to become a multi-millionaire while still in his 20’s. Think of how much good press Bill Gates has received over the years (not that it is undeserved), however Patrick Awuah is nearly unknown in America. However, he has built a legacy in his homeland of Ghana and is changing lives in Africa, just as his life was changed by opportunities in America.
Dreams to Reality
Ashesi University opened with 30 students in 2002 and is now teaching more than 1200 students on a campus outside Accra in Ghana. 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.
The young man, who left Ghana with only $50 in his pocket, became respected and accomplished at Microsoft and was part of technology break-throughs and significant technology growth for America and the world. Then, in a courageous move, he left his successful career and began a new path, bringing the opportunities from which he benefitted to his homeland, Ghana.
Patrick Awuah, Jr.’s awards and designations:
- Honourary Doctor of Laws, Swarthmore College, 2004
- Honourary Doctor of Laws, Babson College, 2013
- Honourary Doctor of Engineering, University of Waterloo, 2018
- Membership of the Order of the Volta by President of Ghana, His Excellency J.A. Kufuor, 2007
- John P. McNulty Prize, 2009
- Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, 2014
- 2015 Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award, University of California, Berkeley, 2015
- MacArthur Fellowship, 2015
- WISE Prize Laureate, 2017
- Millenium Excellence Award for Education Development
Summary of Other 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
- Ghana Web, 2005 Person of the Year
- Young Global Leader, 2007, World Economic Forum
- 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
- Paul Harris Fellow, The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International, 2013
- Elon Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership, Elon University, 2014
- 50 Greatest Leaders in 2015, Fortune Magazine, 2015
For more history from TFP writer, Peter Crowell Anderson, see https://thefoundingproject.com/category/writers/peter-crowell-anderson/
For more information about Ashesi Foundation and University in Ghana, see https://www.ashesi.org