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Originally published September 5, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified September 6, 2010 at 7:13 PM

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Brier Dudley

Microsoft veteran boots up a university in Africa

Imagine what it would be like to finally taste your own wine, after moving to the country and spending years clearing fields, planting vines and building a winery.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Imagine what it would be like to finally taste your own wine, after moving to the country and spending years clearing fields, planting vines and building a winery.

That's where Microsoft veteran Patrick Awuah is today with Ashesi University, the college he created in his native Ghana.

Ashesi recently raised enough money to finish a campus it's developing near Accra, the city where it has been operating since 2002 in a hodgepodge of rented buildings.

The $6.4 million came largely from supporters in the Seattle area, where Awuah still has a home and friends at Microsoft, which he left in 1997 to start work on Ashesi.

Ashesi really has turned the corner. Operations are breaking even, construction is in full swing and a new class of 148 freshmen arrived a few weeks ago.

"It looks like we've been able to do it," Awuah said by phone from the school, where the new year's hubbub could be heard in the background.

"We're beyond the startup now; we're an established institution," he said. "We need to really focus on how we grow and do so with quality and make sure, institutionally, the culture's super strong."

The 100-acre campus is expected to be completed in the spring and occupied by the incoming class in the fall of 2011. It will initially accommodate 600 to 800 students, with room eventually for 2,000.

Buildings under way include two classroom buildings, dormitories with room initially for 176 students, two computer labs, a library and a building for offices and seminars. In the regional style, they're connected by a series of open courtyards.

Thinking long term

While construction and classes continue, Awuah is drafting a long-term plan for the school, which was envisioned as the start of an Ivy League for Africa, producing high-caliber business and government leaders.

Awuah, 45, is getting lots of advice as he works toward this larger goal.

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Earlier this summer, he was in Atlanta meeting with former President Jimmy Carter, whose nonprofit works on health and economic-development projects in Africa.

Carter asked for the meeting after judging a Microsoft Alumni Foundation that Awuah won in 2009.

"His advice to us was first of all to not be afraid of failure, second of all to look at using partnerships as a way to leverage what we do," Awuah said.

Partnerships are one way that Ashesi may extend its model beyond Ghana, to other universities in Africa. Ashesi could also partner with universities in the U.S. as it expands its curriculum.

Meanwhile, Awuah's success is marked by more than buildings and cash flow. The best evidence is what's happened to Ashesi graduates — 269 and counting.

"So far we are continuing, despite the economy, to show that 100 percent of those graduates are launching really high-quality careers in Africa within months of graduating, which is just incredible," said Ruth Warren, a Seattle supporter of the school who led its capital campaign.

More graduates

The next batch is getting ready. One student spent the summer as an intern at Google's Switzerland office, and several others returned from programs at the London School of Economics.

Awuah recently met with graduates who founded companies providing electronic banking and Web technologies.

"It was very cool to see that," he said. "Ghana is just sort of building this infrastructure and our alumni are on the forefront."

Two Ashesi graduates are coming to Seattle with Awuah later this month for a World Affairs Council event Sept. 23 at the University of Washington's Kane Hall.

Aba Ackun, a 2006 graduate, does credit-risk analysis for microfinance organizations in Ghana. Araba Amuasi, '07, manages the Village of Hope Orphanage, where she revamped the curriculum and dramatically improved test scores, Warren said.

They'll be joined by Peter Woicke, chairman of Ashesi's board and former World Bank managing director, in a panel discussion on fostering innovation and ethical leadership in Africa.

More donors

While the group's in town, they may round up a few more donors to name some of Ashesi's new buildings.

Awuah also is likely to gather more input on how to keep Ashesi growing and spreading its influence across the continent.

"We need to think like this is an institution that's going to last hundreds of years," he said. "We need to be doing the work now to make that happen."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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