An engineering program with 40% women? How this Microsoft vet cracked the code for gender diversity

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Patrick Awuah, founder and president of Ashesi University, Microsoft vet, and a MacArthur fellow, in Seattle this week. Photo: Todd Bishop, GeekWire.

Many computer science and engineering departments across the U.S. are still struggling to bring more women into their programs, but a former Microsoft program manager has come up with a formula for gender diversity in Africa.

Patrick Awuah spent eight years at the Redmond company in its heyday, before leaving the company to found and lead Ashesi University in his home country of Ghana in 2002. He was awarded a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship, a highly selective grant also known as the “MacArthur Genius Award,” for his work at the school.

And Ashesi boasts more than just an accomplished founder and president. The school has also achieved that rare and difficult feat of STEM education — gender diversity in technology education. In Ashesi’s engineering program, women represent 33 percent of the current 53-student sophomore class and 40 percent of the freshman engineering class, out of 74 students total.

How are they doing it? Awuah says the way we talk and think about engineering can have a huge impact on who is interested in the field. The school has taken that into account in the way it approaches recruiting.

“It turns out that if you go to a high school and you talk with the kids about engineering and you just talk about machines, the boys are interested, the girls are not. If you talk about solving problems for humanity using engineering, the girls are all in,” Awuah said.

He also said the way engineering is taught at the college level can have a large impact on its diversity. Ashesi’s engineering curriculum is project-based, with students working collaboratively on real-world problems.

“Students are not thrown into a bunch of hard math and science courses to weed people out. They start engineering actually solving problems and designing and building things,” he said.

The spirit of tackling real problems and encouraging a diverse campus also plays into another goal for the school: encouraging entrepreneurship. Awuah said this topic is particularly important in Ghana as Africa’s total population is expected to nearly double by 2050, creating the need for many more businesses and jobs in the coming decades.

Ashesi follows the philosophy “that people should be educated broadly, that people should be educated to think critically, to look at problems from different perspectives and to learn how to ask the right questions,” Awuah said.

Listen to Awuah’s full interview with GeekWire editor Todd Bishop above, or download the MP3 here, and keep reading for an edited transcript of the conversation.

Todd Bishop: You’ve done something remarkable that many schools in the United States are still trying to do — and that is bring gender diversity into your engineering program. Tell us about the engineering program at Ashesi and how you’ve accomplished the sheer number of women that you brought into the program.

Patrick Awuah: When we started planning our engineering program about 3 or 4 years ago, we were starting from a place where our campus was gender balanced. It was 48 percent women and so we decided with engineering, we were going to achieve the same thing.

Now, the purpose for starting an engineering program at Ashesi was that we wanted to educate people who are going to apply engineering to solve some of the hardest problems in Africa. We felt that it was really important to have diversity in thinking about what are the most important problems to solve in the first place and what those solutions should look like. If we just had an engineering program that was very male-dominated like most engineering programs are now in Africa, the decisions about what problems to tackle and what the solutions should look like would be different than if we had a gender-balanced one.

This was a major driving force for us. The second reason we did this was that we look around the world — whether it’s corporate or public service — we find that people who are trained as engineers often end up in very senior management roles in different fields, not just in engineering. And so with a mission that is about educating leaders for Africa, we felt that having gender balance in engineering was completely aligned with this goal of having gender balance in Africa’s leadership corps in the future. You asked, “How did we do it?”

Bishop: We should say what you’ve done: 33 percent of the current sophomore class is women and 40 percent of the freshman class is women. Those are the first two classes.

Awuah: That’s right.

Bishop: People in the U.S. hear that and it’s astonishing, so go ahead.

Awuah: It’s fantastic, and we have this engineering department that’s already not male dominated, and the ratio of women is growing, as well. Now, it turns out that if you go to a high school and you talk with the kids about engineering and you just talk about machines, the boys are interested, the girls are not. If you talk about solving problems for humanity using engineering, the girls are all in. Just even the way we talked about engineering was important. When we’d go visit high schools, talking about solving problems for society and for people was very important.

We also implemented a curriculum that is very project-based. Students are not thrown into a bunch of hard math and science courses to weed people out. They start engineering actually solving problems and designing and building things. This has been very important, I think, for getting young women to be interested in the field of engineering.

Bishop: Let’s take a big step back. Tell us about Ashesi University, how it started, and what your goals are with the school.

Awuah: While I was at Microsoft, my first child was born. Our son was born and that caused me to think about what Africa would mean for my children and for their generation and for future generations. I felt that I needed to go back to Ghana and help with development. I decided that higher ed was the way to do it because if you look at all the people in positions of influence, they’re the people who have had a college education. At the time I was thinking about this, only 5 percent of people aged between 18 and 24 would get a college education in Ghana.

Almost by definition, the people who went to college were going to be running the country fast forward 20, 30 years. So I decided to get into higher ed and specifically to bring the kind of education that I had experienced here, when I came to college in the United States: the liberal arts and sciences. The idea that people should be educated broadly, that people should be educated to think critically, to look at problems from different perspectives and to learn how to ask the right questions.

The bet was that if we could get Ghana’s educational system and higher ed to shift from rote learning — which is what it has been for a very long time — to a model of critical thinking and problem solving and getting all students to look at the connections between fields and get them all to think deeply about ethics and the good society and their role in society, that we would make a change, fast forward 20, 30 years. That’s what Ashesi is about, educating the next bench of leaders in Africa.

Students gather in the Archer Cornfield Courtyard on Ashesi University's campus in Berekuso, Ghana. Photo: Ashesi University.
Students gather in the Archer Cornfield Courtyard on Ashesi University’s campus in Berekuso, Ghana. Photo: Ashesi University.

Bishop: It’s not just about that though, because you have a very specific focus as well on ethics in your curriculum. It’s not the kind of ethics that I think a lot of students experience in the US where it’s maybe part of a capstone course and it’s a lot of preaching from a professor. You integrated into the curriculum.

Awuah: That’s right. We’ve integrated it in the curriculum in two ways. One is that we have a set of leadership seminars — there are 4 of them — that get students to think deeply about leadership and ethics and the good society. There’s a seminar on what constitutes a good leader. There’s one on what constitutes the governance of the good society, so that’s about the rule of law, human rights, ethics at a macro level. There’s one on what constitutes the economy of the good society and there’s one on servant leadership. Those seminars have very explicitly ethics and empathy built into the fabric of those courses.

RELATED: See Ashesi University’s Examination Honour Code

The other thing we do is that we have a set of 7 learning goals for our institution. We ask all the faculty when they draw up their course syllabi to think about which of the 7 learning goals they’re going to address in addition to their normal course objectives and how they’re going to grade and so on, to list 3 or 4 of the 7 that they’re going to address and how they’re going to do it. So this way, every course is addressing these core values of Ashesi.

Finally, we encouraged our students to build a community of trust on campus outside the classroom and inside the classroom. Everything about how we operate, and I try to model that as the leader of the institution — I’m very transparent. We’re very ethical, we never pay bribes. We do things in a very principled way, and we demonstrate to our students and to everybody else the kind of leadership and the kind of society that we want to create.

Bishop: Why is that important in society in Ghana? Why is it important to have this new wave of ethical leaders given the current climate? Maybe you could explain a little bit of that to folks who may not be familiar.

Awuah: That’s right. Currently, Africa is about, most countries are about 50 or 60 years old since independence from colonial rule, so relatively young countries. They went through several decades of military government and strife and democracy is now starting to ripple through the continent. But we do have problems with corruption. When I look at Africa today, there’s about 1.1 billion people and the World Bank estimates that by 2050, there will be 2.5 billion people.

That will constitute 40 percent of the world’s workforce in terms of working age people. We’re going to have to create a lot of jobs, we’re going to have to grow economies across the continent. And this demographic change will be a dividend for Africa if we have good governance and we have strong educational systems. If we have an environment where the private sector can flourish and people are empowered to create new businesses and to create jobs for everybody.

So this is a central question: governance and innovation and entrepreneurship. We need to make it a part of our mandate as educators that we’re going to educate the people who are going to drive that change. Development will not happen just because time is passing. Development will happen when we have a leadership corps that is determined to make it happen. That’s what Ashesi is trying to do, and we’re trying to demonstrate to other universities that it can be done and that we should all put our shoulders to the wheel and make it happen.

Bishop: The school was founded in 2002. … Ashesi means “beginning.” You’re no longer really at the beginning. How would you assess your progress so far?

Awuah: Our progress has been phenomenal. Things have gone a lot better than I thought they would. I hoped that they would go well. We have about 900 alumni, about 800 students and our students all get jobs right after graduation or they started a business or they go to grad school. So in terms of career placement, it’s been fantastic. But more than that, when we go to corporate Ghana, and we ask them to rate our students in terms of ethics, in terms of communication skills, professional skills, their ability to deal with ambiguity, they’re ranking them on a scale from 0 to 100 and they’re ranking them above 75 percent, which is the upper quadrant. We feel that we’ve actually made a lot of progress in achieving our goals.

A typical Ashesi classroom. Photo: Ashesi University.
A typical Ashesi classroom. Photo: Ashesi University.

The other thing that we’ve done that I’m very proud of is that we’ve been able to build a very inclusive community. Fifty percent of our students are getting financial support from the university and our supporters. Thirty percent pay no fees, 20 percent pay partial tuition, 50 percent are paying the full ride. We have 48 percent women, 20 percent are from outside Ghana. It’s a very inclusive campus, and beyond that, it’s a campus that does not have walls in the sense that we’re very connected with the communities around us, and very intentionally so. Every student does community service as a requirement for graduation, for example. Things have gone incredibly well.

Bishop: One reason it’s significant that the employment rate is so high among the graduates is that that’s not the case in the broader population, even among college graduates in Ghana.

Awuah: That’s right.

Bishop: One of your areas of focus is on entrepreneurship, so these folks can go out and not just find a job but create jobs.

Awuah: That’s right. Create jobs or if they enter a job, to help it multiply. If they enter a company, help it grow.

Bishop: So how do you do that within the setting of a school? How do you prepare people to go out and do that?

Awuah: Well, first of all, it turns out that the liberal arts are a great way to educate entrepreneurs, because you think about what entrepreneurs do: they question the status quo, they imagine something new, and they somehow get the courage to go do it. They take risks. The liberal arts approach actually helps do all of those 3 things. Even the process of sticking to a position in class and debating with others in a Socratic method is you’re taking an intellectual risk. You’re putting an idea forward to be challenged by others. This is very different than an education where there’s a teacher in front saying, “This is the answer and that’s the only answer,” and you just repeat back to that person. So the liberal arts is a big part of it.

The second thing is, we have structured our curriculum now so that in the first year, we have a course called, Foundations of Design and Entrepreneurship. It’s a one-year course. Students study design thinking and then they apply design thinking to a range of things. They’re designing products, they’re designing solutions to problems that they see and then at the end of the first semester, they design a business or an organization to address a problem.

The second semester, some of those businesses are selected. They get a small grant from the university and students in teams will run those businesses on campus. It’s very experiential. By the end of their first year, they’ve had a full range of what an entrepreneur does. Ask the questions, imagine something new and actually go do it. They might be successful or they might not. They might make mistakes but it becomes this incredible experience, shared experience that all the students have had that gives them context for when they go into their other courses. Whether they’re doing computer science, or engineering or business management, they can draw on the lessons learned from Foundations of Design and Entrepreneurship and it also builds confidence. Once you’ve done that before, you get this bug.

Bishop: You were educated at Swarthmore College and UC Berkeley here in the U.S.

Awuah: That’s right.

Bishop: Now having been through this experience starting, running, shaping a school, what would you go back and change about your own college experience? Lessons here for people in the U.S.?

Awuah: There’s not a lot that I would change because I think that both of those organizations are quite dynamic. One of the things that I think has been very powerful at Ashesi is this decision that we made based on input that we got from corporate Ghana that we need to do a model that is blending what one would normally think of as traditionally liberal arts which applied majors. That blend has been a very strong thing for Ashesi. Giving that opportunity and providing that opportunity to students everywhere is a very good thing.

The second thing that we did a little differently than, for example, what I experienced at Swathmore is that we created this leadership seminar series. What those seminars are doing are they’re distilling and pulling material from philosophy and economics and social theory and quantitative reasoning and all of that around a theme of leadership, a focus of leadership. Swarthmore is this gourmet grocery store and you pick all these great ingredients and you create your own education and then you stitch it together yourself. Our students can do some of that but having this theme of leadership and giving that focus around that, I think was very good decision that we made.

Bishop: You’re back here in Seattle visiting. How much do you visit the U.S.? What kind of a role do U.S. nonprofits and corporations play in supporting Ashesi?

Awuah: I’m back and forth to the U.S, quite a bit. I think I come to the U.S, at least 3 or 4 times a year and it’s a combination of connecting with financial supporters and donors and also other universities and colleges in the U.S so actually, when I’m done with this interview, a couple hours from now, I’m heading out to Denison University where I’m going to be meeting with the presidents of over 20 universities and colleges. We’re all having a conference together. So I’m staying very connected with the United States.

Bishop: You were at Microsoft from 1989 to 1997. I cannot imagine a more interesting time to be at that company. If you think about it, Windows 95 launched in ’95. That was in some ways the pinnacle.

Awuah: That’s right.

Bishop: What was it like to be there and do you keep tabs on the company today?

Awuah: I do keep tabs on the company and it was an incredible experience joining Microsoft. I remember my first day at work, my manager saw me in the halls and he said, “Where do you live?” And I told him where my apartment was and he said, “No, where’s your office?” He wasn’t kidding. I mean, we all actually lived there. The apartment is where we just went to crash to go to sleep and then we spent all our time at work. It was a fun, intense, very interesting time. People forget, ’89, when I joined the company, Microsoft was number 2 against most of its competitors, so this was word processing, spreadsheets, networking, even developer tools. We were the ones who were striving to get to the top. I was amazed that all the people around me were in their 20s. I was having conversations with people from IBM and Dell and others, other companies who took us all seriously. It was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work but it was great.

Bishop: Do you still own your shares?

Awuah: I’ve diversified. I own some but it’s diversified.

Bishop: Obviously that was what allowed you to start a university, the stock.

Awuah: That’s right. I think having that financial cushion from my days at Microsoft made a big difference but also other people who worked with me who supported my project and who started projects of their own. One of the things that I find really remarkable about Microsoft and the Microsoft alumni body is that a lot of us are very involved with the nonprofit sector. A few years ago, I was at a Microsoft Alumni Association event and they counted for the first time was happening and realized that we were engaged in over 100 countries around the world, that alumni giving to nonprofit causes was at that time $100 million a year, and that does not include Bill’s giving. So it’s just this force for good that has been happening quietly.

Bishop: It’s remarkable in part because if people followed Microsoft in the 90s and the early 2000s, most of the things they would’ve heard was about this company wielding its clout, being embroiled in antitrust and if you look at it now, in fact, we were talking just the other day in the newsroom about the comparison to Amazon — which is just now trying to get into the world of philanthropy and at least show that they’re involved in the community. But you’ve got Microsoft, and especially through the Giving Program, it really has become a model in corporate philanthropy.

Awuah: That’s right. I think part of what has happened is when I joined the company from day one, Bill and the executives were encouraging us to give. I said am I giving to United Way and Swarthmore, of course, and the company would match it. I think that culture of giving has just remained, and when people leave the company, they keep doing it. I remember sitting in that room and hearing that statistic and feeling very proud about it.

Bishop: As we mentioned at the beginning, you are a 2015 MacArthur fellow. What’s that done for you? There was a pretty substantial financial award, more than $600,000. Tell us what the last year has been like for you in that regard.

Awuah: I knew of the MacArthur fellowship and I knew it was a big deal, but it’s a bigger deal than I thought. The credibility of my work has dramatically increased. We’ve been able to get meetings that we’d been struggling to get for years. I think that the MacArthur fellowship had something to do with that. It’s been really remarkable. I remember getting the call and I just finished inspecting a building that had been constructed on campus. The contractors were about to hand it over to us and I get this call and it’s from the MacArthur Foundation and they’re telling me that I won the MacArthur fellowship, the MacArthur Award. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was just surreal. It’s been great in terms of raising Ashesi’s stature and the credibility of the work that we’re doing.

Bishop: What’s next for Ashesi? Where do you want to take the school over the next 10 years?

Awuah: Right now, we’re on a trajectory to increase the work we’re doing with innovation. We’ve done a lot of work in building ethical reasoning but we’re really focusing on driving entrepreneurship now and also educating people who are going to be working in the public sector who will create an enabling environment. One thing that I’m really, really excited about is that we’ve decided we’re going to start being very proactive about sharing our ideas and lessons from Ashesi with other universities. We’re in the process of developing a summer institute, if you will, that will bring the leadership of other universities, the faculty from other universities around the continent to Ashesi so we can work together and think together about how we really strengthen African higher education.

I’m very excited about that because we all say, “Well, it, it takes a village to educate a child.” The transformation that we’re trying to achieve in Africa is going to take 1,000 villages. It’s not going to be done by one institution called Ashesi University. It’s going to be done by thousands of institutions that are working in concert. I’m very excited about that project.

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