#MIghTyAfrican origins: Tertiary Education at Stanford

Ato Ulzen-Appiah
6 min readJan 21, 2019

On January 11, 2019, I joined the Success Drive Whatsapp platform to be featured, share, answer questions, etc.

This was set up by Derrick Obeng of Campus Radio Ghana. This was similar to the conversation I had with the NUGS Volta Region Bloc Women’s Platform to share and discuss volunteeringh, following after Barcamp Ho coordinator Courage Christson Tetteh had done something similar with them earlier. Pamela Klutse made that one happen and I blogged about it as well. 2 awesome people who all were part of the Barcamp Ho 2018 organizing team. We discussed many things on the Success Drive show, it was like a hot seat — #KonnectKouch (watch this space). Edith Bannerman, the host, asked me: “So studying at MIT and Stanford? How did that go?” I picked up #MightyAfrican from my tertiary education in the US. Let’s dig into that. I hope you find some oil you can use.

Studying at both places was great and fun. At Stanford, I did my masters in construction, engineering management. I wanted to learn management because I realized I had so many interests and didn’t want to stick to engineering alone. By this time, I had started my first enterprise — Museke — an African music online business. This is when I started to love technology even more. Stanford was a great place for me, since it is the heart of Silicon Valley, a place where the Google co-founders studied. I spent a lot of my Stanford time exploring different classes, working for different companies, etc. I wasn’t as interested in my Masters program (alone). I took 2 Swahili classes even though I lived in a place that had a huge number of Spanish speakers. This is a major reason why I was in California for 5 years. I don’t regret it. I found my real self.

Though I went to a couple of Ghanaians in Boston events while at MIT, I took this to another level in California (a state with smaller African numbers per capita). For spring break 2007, I traveled to Buffalo, Syracuse, Ithaca, and New York. I went to the Ghana@50 celebration in Syracuse and at Cornell University (another top academic institution I almost went to, twice). I went to several Ghanaian and African events in Californian communities, befriending Africans who lived there. Some of these were unlike me, they didn’t come to Yankee for university, they entered America with visitor visas or the lottery, understanding their dynamics and learning from engaging with them. I joined a Ghanaian recreational football team in the Bay Area where we played often and participated in some African themed tournaments. Preparation, fitness, smartness is as important as skill when it comes to sports. Since there aren’t as many football fanatics in Yankee, I managed to be an important defender on a semi-professional soccer team in the Bay — Palo Alto FC. I can still remember when I scored my first goal after a corner. I remember when I was by the left hand corner and bended it like Beckham for another goal. I didn’t do any dances after scoring like Asamoah Gyan does though. Joining this team helped me network with many others — especially non-Africans.

One of the most poignant things about my time at Stanford was… every time I’d see students working together in the library, I wasn’t always thinking they were working on homework, most times I thought they were working on a startup. Think about that again. It was so common. That kind of environment really challenged me. The drive for success was very high, in the majority of people ‘on the Farm’. There were so many smart people at Stanford, some of which had already started projects and that was inspiring for me. I also realised I had to use the resources around me even more, so I did a better job milking Stanford than I did for MIT. I have come to love design thinking even more.

Just like MIT, I was heavily involved in the Stanford African Students Association. I did spoken word pieces at multiple African themed events. We had Africans from all over, and students who had grown up in African households in the US were active members. For one of our meetings, I prepared waakye for 40 people. Yeap, I could cook paa :-) My love for waakye started at Presec. Stanford was a great community that helped me personally and professionally. We did lots of things together within and outside Stanford. I never used to interact much with graduate students at MIT but while a graduate student at Stanford, I interacted with lots of undergrads. Lots of mutual benefit too hehe. I befriended lots of Black Americans too. And that’s not because of Barack Obama or the fact that Condoleeza Rice was lecturing at Stanford. I was also part of the team that organized the first Stanford African Business Forum. This was useful for me as we started the Barcamps in Ghana in 2008. We had a Stanford Ghanaian Students Association but that was not very active.

While in California, I started dating my second girlfriend. She was not in the arguably the most expensive zip codes in the US, she schooled elsewhere in the Golden State. She is Nigerian. Yeap, I was very Pan-African. I met her at a concert where Alikiba (Tanzanian musician) & Longombas (Kenyan musicians) were performing. What are you doing at a Tanzanian music concert 90 minutes away from where you live? It is a rhetorical question if you have been reading :-) My love for networking was even stronger in a place where public transport was difficult and I did not own a #vimride. I spent a lot of time going to various places in the Bay Area, visiting companies, friends, etc. I went to Ghanaian churches in Oakland sef. I was engaging for personal, friendship and professional reasons. I figured I didn’t do such a good job at MIT, so I had to do better while at Stanford.

One thing I loved about Stanford was the fact that while it was one of the best universities in the world for academics and the world of work, it was also top-notch in sports. Tiger Woods, Michelle Wie, Christen Press, John McEnroe, Chiney Ogwumike, were all at Stanford, using their world class facilities. I tried golf there, once. I watched Inter Milan play at Stanford University, yeap, once. By being close to San Francisco, I got to watch Barcelona (and Messi) play as well. Being able to experience so many awesome things by being in that environment was super. I always biked while on the Farm (so I was very fit), and I even run 10 kilometres once (for charity)!

MIT and Stanford have really shaped me. It showed me so many possibilities and due to that, while I accept the realities of where I might be, I’m always looking at how myself or others can do better in those situations. Surely, they are world class institutions with a lot of funding, great networks, etc…. but these places thought me that in spite of things available to me, I have to go out and grab available opportunities, while leveraging whatever is around for me for more. No matter which place you are in, people compete. So you must do your best. And you should learn to collaborate as well, and work in teams. So much of our grades in these schools depended on work done with others. So you would have to learn to work with people (by force), and realize how you combine your powers determines how successful you all are.

MIT was awesome, but there was so much to do within Stanford, and it had a bigger community. Both are great, but I think Stanford is a better institution for undergraduate degree, while MIT is better for graduate. I switched it around but it’s all good. But there is a reason why the name is MIghTy African. It comes from 2 things, MIT and Africa. But yeah, I am an African and I want to be as mighty as possible :-)



Ato Ulzen-Appiah

I’m part of @GhanaThink which runs @barcampghana @JuniorCampGhana @volunteeringh, etc & @Museke. Read #mightyafrican blogs & @Abocco’s @ #GhanaConscious.