Education pioneer Patrick Awuah, MBA 99, founder of Ghana’s Ashesi University, has been named a fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Awuah, 50, is one of 24 fellows to receive the so-called “genius grant,” awarded to people “who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”
Awuah overcame many obstacles to launch Ashesi University in 2002 as the first Ivy League-style school in his native country. He had arrived at Berkeley-Haas after nearly a decade at Microsoft, and was looking to do something more. He developed the idea for Ashesi in the International Business Development (IBD) program.
The nonprofit university’s mission is to educate ethical, entrepreneurial leaders who will help transform Africa.
The MacArthur Fellows Program awards “no strings attached” grants to extraordinary people. The fellowships come with $625,000 stipends paid out over five years. This year’s “genius award” winners also include University of California, Berkeley, Prof. Peidong Yang, a chemist who is trying to capture carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into a sustainable transportation fuel.
“These 24 delightfully diverse MacArthur Fellows are shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways,” said MacArthur President Julia Stasch. “Their work, their commitment, and their creativity inspire us all.”
Awuah certainly personifies commitment and inspiration. He left Ghana in 1985 with $50 in his pocket and a full scholarship at Swarthmore College. He rose through the ranks at Microsoft to become a program manager, but after the birth of his first child he decided to turn his focus to making a difference in Africa.
“Being a father of someone who was a member of a new generation of Africans I felt I needed to return and be a contributor to Africa’s rise for the sake of my children and for the sake of my children’s children,” Awuah said in his MacArthur announcement video (below). Most problems Africa faces are related to leadership, he said, noting that some of the leadership is corrupt. “I felt if we could change the way that that group is educated then we would change the continent,” he said.
Above: Evening & weekend Berkeley MBA students, pictured with Awuah, on a consulting trip at Ashesi in 2014. They were the 10th Haas team to consult at the university.
It took extraordinary persistence to found Ashesi, which required Awuah to question Ghana’s status quo—dominated by large public universities and rote learning. Ashesi’s graduates are continuing to buck the status quo: while an estimated one-third of African professionals leave Africa, nearly all of Ashesi’s grads have stayed.
In 2012, as Awuah celebrated Ashesi’s 10th anniversary, Haas awarded him the school’s Leading Through Innovation Award. “Patrick Awuah has gone beyond himself, questioning the status quo with a bold mission to develop a generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders with the courage to transform a continent,” says Dean Rich Lyons. “We couldn’t be more proud of his vision and tenacity.”
Awuah was named to Fortune’s list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders in March 2015—joining Pope Francis, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. The list honors “extraordinary men and women who are transforming business, government, philanthropy, and so much more.”
Three other new MacArthur Fellows have UC Berkeley connections. William Dichtel, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University, received a Ph.D. from the College of Chemistry in 2005. John Novembre, a computational biologist and associate professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago, received a Ph.D. in 2006 while working with Montgomery Slatkin in the Department of Integrative Biology. Gary Cohen, a cofounder and president of Health Care Without Harm in Reston, Virginia, studied at UC Berkeley between 1983 and 1984.
“I hope that being a MacArthur Fellow helps me to connect with other people who are moving the needle in the world and this will help further the work I’m doing,” Awuah said.