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Patrick Awuah on the Road to Sustainability in Social Entrepreneurship

Patrick Awuah

Patrick Awuah is the founder and president of Ashesi University in Ghana. Before founding Ashesi, Patrick worked as a Program Manager for Microsoft. He holds bachelor degrees in Engineering and Economics from Swarthmore College, and an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Patrick is a Fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative of the Aspen Global Leadership Network and a member of the USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid. He has been named as a Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine, and the 4th Most Respected CEO in Ghana by a survey of his peers. 

Awuah shared many nuggets of wisdom during his talk. See some of his top-notch advice below.

On encounters with corruption in Ghana – "It'll slow you down, but it won't stop you."

"People are everything. The people and how they behave are everything. If you have the right people on your team, things will be okay."

"You want the mistakes that come not from complacency, but the mistakes that come from pushing the envelope."

"Does this decision pass the 50-year-rule? Will we say this is wrong in 50 years? If the answer is no, then it's the wrong decision for today as well."

The Farley Center welcomed Patrick Awuah, the founder and president of Ashesi University in Ghana, to campus Wednesday for a talk on the road to establishing his social entrepreneurship venture in higher education.

Through the university, Awuah is striving to transform Africa by educating the next generation of ethical, innovative African leaders. Farley adjunct professor Todd Warren, who is a current member of the Ashesi Board of Trustees, called it "the most interesting entrepreneurial venture" he's ever been a part of as he introduced Awuah to the group of around 35 students and members of Northwestern's community in Harris Hall.

Before founding Ashesi, Awuah worked as a program manager for Microsoft. He first had the idea to start a software company in Ghana, but changed plans after learning that Ghanaian college students were writing code by hand and memorizing algorithms without use of a computer.

"It was pretty clear that if I started a software company, it would be difficult to find people who would write world-class software," Awuah said.

In 1999, he set off with a business plan to create a Ghanaian university, which he developed while acquiring an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

"What Africa needs is great teams in innovation," Awuah said. "It's the same thing that any continent needs… This is what creates change. If you have great teams, you have great institutions, you have great companies. And if people think in an innovative way, then you create change. This is why Ashesi exists."

Awuah saw that many of the social and policy issues Ghana faces stemmed from leaders accepting the status quo and at times being corrupt. He set out to educate a new generation of leaders with critical thinking skills, concern and courage. "Our theory of change is that if we can create leaders who have these qualities, they will make the change in Africa," Awuah said.

Like any business venture, there were bumps in the road. Awuah presented a graph of projected growth of his institution versus the actual growth rate and it revealed the reason behind many of his now gray hairs. The cost structure of his business was very different than what he'd envisioned and raising money was more difficult. He also admitted that his first hire was a mistake and at one point, the school came within two weeks of running out money.

Finances were often a sore spot, but he resolved early on that the bottom line would not be money in every decision. This came to the test when the Ashesi administration was deciding on whether to offer financial aid in the beginning or wait until the school achieved sustainability. Awuah summed up their verdict: "We're not going to start off as a rich kid school, and we're going to share what little we have with students that need it."

Ima Samba, a freshman in the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences who came out to hear Awuah speak on campus after viewing his TedTalk interview online, was "shocked" by the decision of Awuah's team to provide financial aid from the start of the school. She added that "it wasn't entirely inappropriate" for the school to become more established first.

"It was so inspiring that it was so important to him that a part of the core of that university is it couldn't be a school just for the elite and the wealthy of West Africa," Samba said.

Ashesi University has now reached sustainability as a social entrepreneurship venture and produced many leaders to boast about. One alumnus became the lead engineer for Ghana's election registry. "It was the cleanest it's ever been in its history," Awuah said. "It really impacted the quality of the elections last year."

"It's been really phenomenal to see young people rapidly getting into leadership positions and executing with integrity and executing with compassion and asking the bigger questions."

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