I was feeling quite good about my remarks—until I realized that I had to speak after Christabel. She has set the bar too high. Christabel: I hear you have dreams of one day becoming a forensic accountant and corporate lawyer. As someone who spent over two decades practicing corporate law, I would hire you in a heartbeat. You are destined for great things.

To President Awuah, the Board of Trustees, Provost Owusu-Ansah, esteemed guests, and—most importantly—the Class of 2023: What a beautiful occasion. I am honored to share this day with you. Let me begin by congratulating the Class —and acknowledging all that it took for you to get here today. It must feel like just yesterday when you packed your bags, arrived on the Hill, and drank from your calabashes for the very first time.

And now, here you are. Take this in for a moment. Today is about you, but it also belongs to the village that helped get you here. Please join me in recognizing those who made this moment possible: Your families. Your professors. Your wider Ashesi community. And everyone who came from all around the globe to celebrate you.

I will never forget the day when a former Microsoft executive from Accra approached me with a dream. He was on a mission, in his own words, to “propel an African renaissance.”

To educate ethical and entrepreneurial leaders.

To reimagine higher education in his homeland for future generations.

There was something in the way he spoke—the passion in his voice, the clarity of his conviction—that moved me. In the decades since, I have watched with great pride and admiration as President Awuah’s vision comes to life. Your graduation today is further proof that, when you dare to dream—and “begin it now”—anything is possible.

We all know that Ashesi is Akan for “beginning.” Now, I won’t recite everyone’s favorite quote from a certain German playwright. But on a day like this, it feels fitting that we return to the spirit behind the name of this esteemed institution. Today may mark the end of your four years at Ashesi. But it also signals a new beginning. You have been told, time and time again, that Africa is home to the youngest population in the world.

That it is up to your generation to tackle the continent’s and the world’s most pressing challenges—challenges created, even compounded, by my generation and those long gone. (So, you know—no pressure at all.)

But with a task so daunting, you may be wondering… what now? Trust me: I know the feeling. I remember sitting at my own commencement, 42 years ago, with that same sense of anticipation and unease—wondering how I could possibly meet all that was expected of me. Class of 2023, take a deep breath. I am not here to add to whatever uneasiness you may be feeling. Instead, my hope is to share what has helped me navigate my life—what has helped me discover my bliss, and make a positive mark in the world—so that you may do the same. Indeed, during this final lecture, I would like to share three lessons:

First, the value of your education lies far less in the credentials it bestows than in its liberatory potential to guide you toward your purpose.

Second, kindness is among the most underrated—and most valuable—qualities that we can cultivate in ourselves.

And finally, while it has become cliché, never underestimate the power of breaking free from your comfort zone.

Remember, Class of 2023:  You are the lucky ones. You begin this journey with a head start: an Ashesi education. But true to the education you’ve received here, what matters isn’t the “what,” but the “why it matters.” You dabbled in math, science, and engineering—but also studied foreign languages, great works of literature, the visual and performing arts. That you embarked on this cross-disciplinary adventure at an African institution of learning is significant.

Because you will soon realize that breadth in your education…that ability to recognize the complexity of our humanity; the contributions of people everywhere, especially as it pertains to Africa and the worldwide African diaspora…this is an incredible gift. In fact, I believe it is the surest path toward your own and our collective well-being. I know, because I was—and continue to be—the beneficiary of a liberatory education.

Allow me to indulge in a little throwback. I was born in 1957, the year of Ghana’s independence. I was just five years old when my parents sent me to boarding school in the United Kingdom. My early years in the UK were challenging.  Many days, I felt homesick. Sometimes, even disillusioned with school—the one thing I knew I was good at. And it certainly didn’t help that I was often the lone African in my class—unless I happened to bump into my brother… or a family friend… the other two Africans at school. It wasn’t until the later years when I finally discovered my preferred escape. It was the one class where I reveled in my coursework—and felt a rare connection to home: My literature class.

I remember reading the works of Chinua Achebe and other African authors who understood Africa to be central—rather than peripheral—to the creation of the modern world. All I wanted to do was read more: More about Africa, the African diaspora, and its contributions to society. Lucky for me, it was around this time that my brother started buying books—and would leave them around his room. To pass the time, I’d pick them up and start reading anything I could get my hands on: The autobiography of Malcolm X. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

These books were my first exposure to the struggles of Afro-descendants—in the United States, in Europe, and far beyond. As I dove into these seminal works, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the education I wanted—not the Euro-centric textbooks of my history classes. But it was also the first time I came to understand what education meant to me.

I could care less about memorizing the right answers. I cared more about the cause of righteousness—about, in the tradition of Malcolm X and W.E.B. Dubois, leveraging my knowledge to make the world better and freer for everyone.  Of course, I was young—and didn’t yet understand my own power. I had expectations to meet. Responsibilities to fulfill. Parental wishes to respect.

My mother wanted me to be a doctor. My father wanted me to take over the family business that he built from scratch. Neither of them had the opportunity to go to university. So they invested everything into their children’s education, and mine was the most expensive. Needless to say, making my parents proud was very important to me. But in pursuit of their approval, I soon found myself on an uncomfortable path. I was already in my final year of the British school system, and was on track to begin a biochemistry and physiology program that would eventually lead to a PhD.

But at just 18 years old, and with the allure of a liberatory education front of mind, I remember thinking: Me? A PhD in biochemistry? So I persuaded my parents to let me take a gap year. And then my whole world changed. By sheer chance, I met an admissions counselor from a small liberal arts college in the United States.

She had a huge Angela Davis afro, and was in Ghana to recruit students for Wesleyan University. I had my second “a-ha” moment as she spoke of another concept I had never heard of before: a liberal arts education. I was always the type of student who enjoyed a variety of subjects—and the idea of solely studying the sciences in the UK was deeply dispiriting.

A liberal arts education, where I could take classes in whatever interested me, felt like a breath of fresh air. So I applied to Wesleyan, was accepted, and in the fall of 1977, packed my bags for Middletown, Connecticut. My education at Wesleyan gave me the foundation on which to succeed. It gave me the freedom to explore my curiosity—to pursue my passions. But when I entered law school, the legal profession, and later the nonprofit world, I would come to see how a liberal arts education set me apart.

I majored in American history. But my coursework in a variety of subjects gave me the interdisciplinary foundation to evaluate everything holistically. No matter the case at my law firm, no matter the challenge we faced at the Ford Foundation, chances were high that I knew something from some class that could give me a head start.

Or if I didn’t, I knew the right questions to ask. Class of 2023, your Ashesi education is no different. And I want you to know: That matters, now more than ever. Your generation has heard endlessly about the crises we all face—of inequity, of inequality, of injustice, and of the existential threat of climate change. There is no single solution that will save us all.

But I can tell you, as someone who has engaged with these issues at the highest levels of the law and philanthropy, our future depends on people who can think holistically. People who know better than to dismiss the storied past of the African continent and the worldwide African diaspora. People who recognize that our common humanity means there is far more that unites us… than divides us. Our future depends on people who can code—and understand great works of literature.

People who know basic accounting principles—and are curious about other cultures and ways of knowing. People who work hard—and play hard, too. You know that well, Class of 2023. Now, a quality education is just one part of the equation. I studied hard and earned decent grades. I wish I could say that was the secret to my success. But the truth is, despite all my efforts in the classroom, I would not be standing before you today with as richly fulfilling a life story to tell… if it weren’t for the generosity and kindness of others.

Class of 2023: This is the second lesson I want to share.

Kindness may be underrated. But my life has taught me that it is the single greatest virtue. Throughout my journey—and especially at Wesleyan—I had the great fortune of crossing paths with people who took a chance on me, out of sheer kindness and generosity. I think of the late Lauren Joicin—that admissions counselor who persuaded me to apply to Wesleyan all those years ago, and who changed my life in ways unimaginable.

I think of the late Jerry Long, an African American professor at Wesleyan’s Religion Department, who saw a confused freshman from Ghana wandering campus—and, without hesitation, invited him to his house for a home-cooked meal.

I think of Edgar Beckham, the first African American to serve as Dean of Wesleyan—and his wife, Ria—who always looked out for me, kept me well-fed, and nominated me for the Butterfield Prize, one of the highest honors bestowed to a member of Wesleyan’s graduating class. 

And I think of Mora McLean, President emerita of the Africa-America Institute, the organization I now lead—whose dear friendship and counsel has kept my feet on the ground with every step forward.

In their own distinct ways, each of these individuals changed the trajectory of my life. But what united them—what was at the heart of every conversation, every home-cooked meal, every act of mentorship—was radical kindness.  It’s no coincidence that these gestures of kindness led me to the deeply fulfilling work I lead today: Promoting the development of Africa through education… and genuine, widespread liberation.

So, Class of 2023: Never underestimate the power of kindness. Never underestimate the power of taking the time to share some advice, of inviting someone over for dinner, of telling someone you believe in them.

Because I am living proof that just one interaction can change a life forever. Now, my friends and mentors made my time at Wesleyan special. But it certainly wasn’t smooth sailing when I first arrived on campus.

Which leads me to the third lesson I’d like to share: Comfort is overrated. I don’t think I spoke more than a dozen words during my first year at Wesleyan. I didn’t understand America at all—especially socially. People were too friendly. It certainly didn’t help that I used to speak the Queen’s English. Every time I opened my mouth, jaws dropped.  My classmates had never seen somebody with such dark skin speak with a proper English accent.

I remember when I first arrived in the States, I missed my connecting flight from New York City to Hartford Connecticut and ended up staying with a classmate whose mother was on my flight. When school began, her mother saw me and quickly announced to everyone who had come to registration:

“There he is!”

Suddenly, everything stopped. Literally. The cars on both sides of the road. Passersby on the street. It even felt like the squirrels and birds had stopped to stare. The entire campus approached me like I was a foreign specimen, mesmerized by the African in town. They asked:

“Are you really from the UK and Ghana?”

“Could you say this word for me?”

I wish I could tell you this was all a nightmare. But it actually happened.  I became even quieter and more reserved. I barely participated in class. I was anxious about making friends. Suddenly, the promise of America felt a lot like my time in the UK.  In retrospect, though, the discomfort from that episode was instrumental to my personal growth. It pushed me to find a community of people at Wesleyan who had similar experiences to mine—people who had their own “African in town” moments.

My sophomore year, I found great comfort and refuge in what they called the Malcolm X House, a living space dedicated to the exploration and celebration of the African diaspora. It was a turning point for me—the ultimate intersection of everything I wanted in my undergraduate experience. Later in life, I also began to see how difficulties could be leveraged into advantages, challenges into opportunities. When I entered the legal profession, some still saw me as “the African.”

Even after becoming Partner at my law firm, clients rarely thought I was the team leader. They’d address my white colleagues, but never make eye contact with me. Meanwhile, I’d sit back, listen, and observe. And when I started talking, I’d see their faces drop. Because I had so much time to read the room, I was able to offer a holistic point of view—just like in my seminars at Wesleyan. I knew how to synthesize information, to move us closer to a solution. Suddenly, “the African” in the room was “the partner who got stuff done.”

As you leave the Hill and explore the world around you, you are bound to have moments of discomfort. Of embarrassment. Don’t let them get to you. Because Class of 2023, I’m here to tell you: Comfort is overrated. It holds you back. The most fulfilling experiences in life are born from discomfort: When you have to confront your own fears, and discover your own limitations. These are the moments when you discover your hidden strengths—when you can turn your weaknesses into superpowers. Leverage the liberatory potential of your education to guide you toward your purpose.

Don’t underestimate the power of kindness—or overestimate the power of comfort.

I’ve shared enough advice already. But if I can leave you with one final thought… It’s to never lose your sense of purpose. Class of 2023: Your futures are bright.  You are the privileged few who will make decisions that will move markets, transform communities, and impact the lives of millions. Along the way, there will be distractions: A fatter paycheck. More power. Fame.

Normally, I’d warn you to stay the course. To never lose sight of your values or your conscience. But that’s not something Ashesi graduates need to worry about. I mean, this community is so ethical that you dedicate a day to breaking the rules. And only would Ashesi students break the rules… by storming Dean Mahdi’s office on Crazy Day with an impromptu dance party.

Yes, I’ve seen the TikTok. 

What I’m really trying to say is, I know the demanding curriculum at Ashesi has instilled an impressive work ethic in each and every one of you. You are the types of students who sweat the little details. Who will stay in lab past midnight to triple-check your data. Who will spend an hour perfecting a paper—or an all-nighter fixing code.

In turn, you’ve probably had those moments when you wonder what it’s all for—if it’s all really worth it. Maybe it was at the Fab Lab, with that breathtaking view of the city lights. Maybe while you were waiting three hours for pancakes at Aunty Caro’s. We’ve all had those moments when we can’t help but think: What am I doing here? Why did I leave home for this?

And yet, Class of 2023, here you are today, ready to receive your degrees.  You’re here because, for all those late nights studying, for all those weeks where you were pushed to your limits… you never lost sight of what matters. The next chapter of life isn’t much different. You will have those late nights in the office, in the classroom, even at home—for reasons that are career-related, personal, or somewhere in between.

But Class of 2023: When you have those moments, remember those city lights. Remember those pancakes.  Remember your Ashesi family—your professors, your classmates, your mentors—who supported you, guided you, believed in you, even when you didn’t believe in yourself.  And remember the purpose that fuels our collective efforts:

To make the world better, and freer, and fairer for all those who will come after us. I cannot wait to see all that this class will accomplish. Thank you for letting me be a small part of this very big moment. 

And congratulations to you all on this new beginning.