When I was completing high school in the early 1980s in Ghana, a bright-eyed 19-year-old, I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. I read a lot of science fiction novels. I marveled at the NASA space shuttle program. The idea of exploring space fascinated and intrigued me. So I decided to apply to college in the United States to study engineering.
My family was desperate to get me out of Ghana. A military coup had brought our country’s economy to a standstill. Businesses closed. Severe food shortages spread all over the country. Inflation officially reached 100%, and the typical shop in Ghana consisted of empty shelves.
Thankfully, I was accepted to Swarthmore College with a full scholarship to study engineering. I arrived in the United States with $50 dollars in my pocket and a head full of dreams.
The education I experienced at Swarthmore was different from anything I’d experienced before. Growing up in Ghana, my education had been built around rote learning and memorization. Questioning teachers could lead to serious trouble, and our curriculum was designed to educate people who would be good at following instructions—remnants of our colonial history.
Swarthmore was the complete opposite. Our classes focused on teaching us how to ask the right questions and discover information for ourselves, not what to think. Even though I was an engineering major, we studied broadly and learned to break down complex problems and to see them from different perspectives. We pondered our responsibility as citizens of the world. My multidisciplinary education prepared me very well for Microsoft, where I went to work after I graduated.
One year after I started at Microsoft, I returned to Ghana for the first time since leaving, and I was disillusioned by what I found. We still had a military government. The water ran two hours a day where my family lived, from midnight to 2am. Telephones did not work, and so businesses sent messages by couriers traveling on motorcycles through the capital. This was a stark contrast from my new life in Seattle and at Microsoft.
When I returned to the United States, I told myself that I would never return to Ghana, and I moved ahead with seeking permanent residency in America. But five years later, my son was born and his birth changed the way I saw both the world and Ghana, my home. As a father of an African child, I wondered, “How will he see himself growing up? What would Africa mean to him?”
I felt a deep regret about my earlier path, and I realized I didn’t have the power to disown a continent. I decided that I needed to move back home and contribute to developing new narratives in Africa. The next step was figuring out how. When I spoke to family and friends about the state of Ghana—which is reflected in other African societies—I made an interesting observation.
When you take apart many of the problems that exist on the continent—corruption, high unemployment, weak health systems—and try to trace them back to their origins, you almost always end up with the issue of leadership. How could we strengthen leadership across the continent in both business and civil society?
My belief was that we needed to focus on the successors of my generation: the young people who would eventually be making decisions that would influence millions of lives across multiple industries in Africa. And I realized that with less than 6% of the continent’s college-age youth being enrolled in tertiary education—and therefore less equipped to eventually form the core of African leadership—we couldn’t shift the continent’s trajectory if we didn’t educate these leaders differently.
And so I decided that rather than starting a software company like I had originally intended, I would work to start a new university. That university would eventually become known as Ashesi University.
For someone who had once aspired to be an astronaut, this experience quickly brought me down to Earth. It was much more difficult than I had anticipated. We hadn’t anticipated the difficulty of navigating the accreditation process in Ghana. We hadn’t anticipated the difficulty of fundraising. But Ashesi’s founding team was resilient. Instead of postponing our launch to focus on raising money for a campus, we put up our personal savings behind the university to launch it in a home in Ghana’s capital city of Accra, with bedrooms and livings rooms converted to classrooms.
In 2002, we opened our doors to 30 students. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. When we received our first tuition check, I wanted to frame it and hang it on the wall of our admissions office—but of course, we could not do that, because we needed the money!
Today we have over 1,000 students, a permanent 100-acre campus, and six majors covering business, technology, and engineering. Our alumni are now working in high-impact careers; employers and investors are impressed with their ability to tackle complex problems, deal with ambiguity, and their integrity. Nearly all our graduates receive job offers, start a business, or enroll in a graduate school within six months of graduating—and nine out of ten are here in Africa, helping build solutions and collectively involved in work that affects millions of lives.
Each day, I talk with young people on our campus who understand their responsibility to Africa; young people who are unafraid of the world ahead of them, and who are empowered to create and build. In their classes they see teachers who are just as committed; many of these teachers are themselves being Africans who moved back to Ghana to contribute and help develop talent for the continent. Ashesi now provides the learning experiences that many students once left the continent for. Not only has this raised the bar for other institutions, it is helping keep talent here, in Africa.
African students who now choose to travel outside their home country for education are increasingly choosing to stay within the continent; South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, and Tunisia are becoming top destinations for students. And with Africa’s population growth outpacing that of any other continent in the decades ahead, the continent could become a center of education in the future, if we invest in making it so.
We founded Ashesi University with an intentional mission: To educate ethical entrepreneurial leaders, the spirit of curiosity, the willingness to do the right thing even when no one is watching over them, the concern for the wellbeing of others, and the courage to take on difficult but important tasks. It is these skills and values that we believed would make the next generation of great leaders. It is these skills and values that we have continued to nurture within our students.
Their stories and achievements remind me that the work we do as educators is about making the world a more hopeful place for the generations that come after us. We’re in the hope business. Our job is to help the next generation look beyond present challenges to a brighter future, and equip them with the skills to create it. But it is not only important for students to believe in their ability to create, it is important that they believe that they can create it here in Africa—in Accra, in Lagos, in Nairobi, all across the continent.
When I was leaving Ghana for the US, I believed at the time that it was my best chance for a great education and career. This is not the case for me today. Our work at Ashesi—in Ghana, and in Africa—focuses on helping students see the opportunities that exist here; opportunities that often present themselves as problems and challenges. We are creating high-quality learning experiences here so that students in Africa do not feel they need to leave the continent to pursue education.
Today Ashesi represents an example of what we can accomplish in Africa: how we can rise above the challenges we face and forge real pathways to prosperity. We have built an institution that rivals some of the best in the world, built and designed by Africans. And for the young students who live and study here, they see an example of what they themselves can achieve for Africa.