May 24, 2019
Ashesi President Patrick Awuah served as Commencement Speaker for the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley’s 2019 Full-time MBA and Evening & Weekend MBA Commencement.
Patrick graduated from Berkeley Haas in 1999, after he successfully turned his idea for Ashesi University into a business plan through the International Business Development (IBD) Program. For several years Berkeley MBA students helped build the business plan for Ashesi, and Haas faculty served as advisers. Classmate Nina Marini helped launch Ashesi in 2002 in a rented facility with 30 inaugural students.
You can view or read Patrick’s speech, in its entirety, below:
Berkeley Haas Dean Ann Harrison:
One of the great traditions of the Haas School is the selection of our Commencement Speaker. Each year we call upon an individual of uncommon distinction to address the MBA graduating class. Someone who personifies our defining leadership principles. This year we’re delighted that the Berkeley Haas MBA Commencement Speaker is such a leader and one of our very own. Patrick Awuah, MBA 1999, Founder and President of Ashesi University of Ghana.
Patrick is a visionary leader who’s credited with transforming young people on the African continent through education. Patrick was born and raised in Ghana. When his son was born, he decided to go back home and establish a new university that would offer a liberal arts education. His dream was to develop ethical and entrepreneurial leaders for Ghana, and for the African continent. At Haas, Patrick turned his idea into a project through our international business development program. To this day, our MBA students consult for Ashesi. In fact, we have a team on the ground there, right now. Haas Faculty have served as advisors, and our beloved former dean Rich Lyons has just joined Ashesi’s Board. Ashesi has earned many accolades including a MacArthur Fellowship, remember those are the genius grant awards, and the Haas School has also recognized him through its Leading Through Innovation Award. Please join me in a warm welcome for Patrick Awuah.
Thank you very much, thank you so very much. Dean Harrison, members of the faculty and administration, family and friends, the Class of 2019: Thank you for inviting me here to speak today. Class of 2019: congratulations. It is so heartwarming to see you all here today. I’m so very pleased for you. 20 years ago, I sat in this amphitheater with my colleagues from the MBA Class of 1999 as we prepared to start a new phase of our lives. So, I know how all of you are feeling today. I came to Berkeley with a singular goal: To prepare myself and to figure out how to establish a successful new university in Ghana. My greater purpose was to contribute towards the transformation of the African continent, and by so doing, help change the world. And when I got here, by the way, the Director of Admissions confided to me that they weren’t quite sure if I was sincere in my admissions essay, my application. And they were really blown away to see me diligently working towards this project.
So, I was in my early 30’s. My wife and I had just become parents of a beautiful infant when we decided that it made total sense for me to quit my career at Microsoft to set up on this new adventure. And sometimes, I wonder what possessed us to set up on this new journey. Sometimes, I think that the lack of sleep we were experiencing at the time, taking care of our baby affected our executive decision-making ability.
In fact, a few weeks ago, I suggested to my wife, we were not thinking properly when we just made that decision as a young couple. I mean, why did we think it was reasonable for me to quit my job right after we’d started a family? Would we advise a young couple right after their first child to make the same decision? Would we advise them, of all things, to set off to go change the world?
Africa was here before I was born. We did not establish the trajectory of the world. Isn’t the universe unfolding as it should? As Max Ehrmann claims in his poem Desiderata? Aren’t Africa, the world and the universe unfolding as they will, with or without us? Her response was, “Patrick, someone has to do something,” and she was right of course. And history is full of stories of individuals and groups of individuals who have dared greatly, who sometimes suffered greatly and who made significant contributions that improved the human condition.
But my questions were important too. There are questions about what we ought to dare, and how big we should dream. There are questions about privilege and responsibility. Questions about timing and risk-taking. Questions you should ponder at this transition point in your life.
So, did Rebecca and I make the right decision? I can tell you, Class of 2019, that by making the decision to stop accumulating financial capital for our family at such an early stage in our careers, we closed off certain possibilities. So, for example, I am in no position here today to make a grant to pay off your college loans. But I can also tell you that by making the decision we made, we have positively affected the lives of thousands of students and alumni of Ashesi University. We have changed the trajectories of many families for the better. We have changed the narrative in Ghana and in Africa about what Higher Education can and should accomplish for our countries. And through the work of Ashesi students and alumni, we have positively touched the lives of millions of people in Africa.
Twenty years ago on my Commencement day, I knew I had made the right choice to come to Berkeley. Here, my dreams of establishing a university in Ghana were nurtured by my colleagues and faculty who believed it could be done. In fact, I made the decision to come to Berkeley after I came for the Open Day at Haas, and everybody, everybody, I told about my ambition, immediately said, “Wow, that’s such a cool idea.” And I felt that this is a place where I would be encouraged and supported. This thing that I was about to do.
So, by the time I graduated, I had a business plan for Ashesi University. Developed by a team of MBA students who worked with me on it, and sharpened by the advice of faculty and venture capitalists who generously took their time to review it. A member of that team, Nina Marini, joined me as co-founder. I had a curriculum designed by faculty here. I had conceptual drawings for Ashesi’s campus developed by a team of architecture students here. Most importantly, I had clarity about how I would go about the daily, weekly, monthly, and annual tasks to get Ashesi University up and running. So, in just two and a half years after I graduated, we were able to enroll our first students, a pioneer class of 30 students, at Ashesi University. And this community at Berkeley helped me set the stage for that.
This past year has been one of remarkable effort and growth for Ashesi. We added five new campus buildings as our enrollment exceeded 1,000 students. We were finally taken off the Government of Ghana’s private universities supervision program and granted full rights by the President of Ghana to operate independently. We became the youngest private university to receive this recognition in Ghana.
It has also been a year of reflection for me, about my journey as a university founder. Nearly every week, students come into my office to tell me about their dreams or their careers or their lives. Goals they hope to accomplish, businesses they hope to build. Problems they hope to solve. And every so often, I find myself thinking, “Wow, these students are so much more ambitious than I was when I was their age. They’re so much more driven when I was their age.” And this is as it should be. They belong in the universe. In Max Ehrmann’s words, “They’re no less in the trees and in the stars, and that their dreams and their ambitions belong here too.”
As I reflect on the aspirations of my students and the accomplishments of Ashesi alumni, I see that my decision to move back to Ghana was just as it should have been. That my finding Berkely, at a time when all my classmates were also arriving here, was all part of this unfolding. That the decisions that I made for my life at the time were decisions that the universe intended for me to make. Ashesi started here and I recognize the fact that there are not many places where this could have happened. We all had hope that it was going to be a remarkable institution, but it has exceeded even our loftiest dreams. The commitment of our students, faculty, and staff on our campus remains one of the most uplifting things in the work that I do and I have experienced the joy and the peace that comes from serving people in the community that I care deeply about.
At Ashesi today, I see echoes of Berkeley, in our classrooms and in the curriculum that we teach. The values that we share, from honesty and integrity at the highest levels, to the open embrace of equitable access, to opportunities for learning and development. I see echoes of Berkeley in how our community works and in our corporate culture. I see echoes of Berkeley in the ambition in Ashesi’s people and leadership. Ashesi University continues to grow and become stronger every year. Each academic quarter brings its own successes and learning as well as its own difficulties to navigate and overcome. It is all unfolding as it should.
Sitting here today, many of you will have questions. Where do you go next after this milestone in your lives? What career opportunities should you pursue next? Should you go ahead and start that business you intended? Should you stay in the U.S. or go back home and contribute your skills to a cause you believe in? These are often tough questions and tough questions don’t have easy answers. But I encourage you to take your next steps from Berkeley with confidence. You’re ready. You’re prepared. And I’m certain that your best years, regardless of where you are today in your life, at this moment, that your best years are still ahead of you.
When you made the choice to apply to Berkeley, when you got that offer of admissions from the Berkeley admissions office, from the Haas admissions office, whatever choices you’ve made over your time here, good or bad, whatever friendships and relationships you’ve built here, whatever co-founders you’ve met here, all those things are exactly as they should be.
Be willing to accept the lessons that your life and work will teach you moving forward. You will soar. You will stumble sometimes. But you will recover stronger and wiser. And through it all, you will find, and you will create beauty.
Remember Berkeley Haas: question the status quo, have confidence without attitude, be students always, and look beyond yourselves, always focusing on the bigger picture. Good speed Class of 2019. I wish you all the best in the years ahead. Thank you.
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