How Young Leaders Can Drive Change

Ferdinand Quayson

From living on the streets of Ghana to running a nonprofit for disadvantaged students, Ferdinand Quayson ’20 is focused on helping other young entrepreneurs succeed.

I vividly remember my first semester at Wesleyan. It was not the greatest of times. I was struggling to manage my academic work while adapting to a completely different environment, one that tested me at every stage. I had been out of school for four years and suddenly found myself competing with students fresh out of high school with high energy and intensity.

Nevertheless, I had already been nursing an idea of starting my own nonprofit to promote access to higher education for students in underprivileged communities in my native country of Ghana. One way I thought about doing this was to provide mentorship, resources, and support to enable low-income students to compete for available scholarships both within Ghana and abroad to pursue college education.

I was very determined to see this project come to fruition. Ezra, my roommate, probably grew tired of hearing me talk about this project every night since I would talk about it to anyone who would listen, but he was my number one fan. He would encourage me at every turn. One day while reading The Wesleyan Argus, I came across an article on Alvin Chitena ’19 who had won a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant for his proposed project on running a summer coding school for students in Zimbabwe. After reading this article, my determination to see my own project through grew exponentially. I knew that I had not only the resources at Wesleyan to see this project through, but also, I could get much-needed funding to execute it. That very evening, I sent out a long email to Makaela Kingsley ’98, director of the Wesleyan Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship. I told her all about myself. I disclosed to her how I grew up as an orphan and spent the greater part of my childhood on the streets of Accra before eventually fighting my way through to gain a full scholarship to pursue my undergraduate education at Wesleyan. She became my biggest source of inspiration and has continued to be a mentor and a mother figure in my life.

That spring, I decided to apply for a Wesleyan Summer Grant to travel to Nigeria to work with an organization called Junior Achievement Nigeria, a nonprofit that is working to promote financial literacy, working readiness, and entrepreneurship among youth in Nigeria. When my internship was over, I traveled to Ghana, where I set my own plan in motion. I came up with the name Young Achievers Foundation Ghana because I believed that every young person is an achiever; we just need that right environment and support to grow.

Starting my project was not easy. I struggled to get principals of high schools to listen to me because I was perceived as young and not knowing what I was doing. After weeks of preparation, our maiden workshop launched. I expected 50 or fewer students to attend, but to my surprise, more than 5,000 students participated, showing the demand for my project. That moment set in place all the success that my nonprofit has achieved so far.

In a little over three years, and after receiving my own Davis Projects for Peace award in 2019, we have reached more than 10,000 students through our scholarship workshops and mentorship programs. We have fundraised around $92,000 and secured more than $4 million in scholarships for low-income students to pursue college education all over the world. Today, we have created our own scholarship center with over 3,000 college application materials and internet access, and an advisory center to assist students with securing scholarships.

My decision to start my nonprofit, knowing how big a commitment it was while I was pursuing my education, was not easy. I struggled with my academics. While everybody was busy working on their assignments, I was occupied with planning fundraising events, traveling to local high schools, writing activity reports, and coordinating the daily operations of my organization. I knew I had to work thrice as hard. Despite the struggles, the benefits that I have personally derived from starting my nonprofit have far outweighed the cost. I have been able to foster great relationships, including one with Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, ’09, who has been the biggest supporter of my nonprofit since hearing about my story during a pitch I made at the Wesleyan Seed Grant competition. Today, I can call on him for anything, including things outside of my nonprofit work.

When I graduated, I received four awards: the Campus Inspiration Award for my work at Wesleyan and in Ghana; the prestigious Butterfield Prize, which is given to a graduating senior who has exemplified those qualities of character, leadership, intellectual commitment, and concern for the Wesleyan community; and, finally, the White Fellowship Prize for Government and the Christopher Brodigan Prize for public service work in Africa. All these achievements would not have been possible without taking the risk of starting my nonprofit.

At every stage in the development of my nonprofit, I was reminded of how young and inexperienced I was. Often, we consider leadership as something you do when you are older. And there is some merit to this. Years of life experiences definitely play a crucial role in the success of a leader. However, I also believe that young people can successfully take on leadership roles and execute them to perfection. It is not easy as I have highlighted in my case, but with an enabling environment, an understanding of the challenges that come with being a young leader, and a determination and a passion for a cause, young leaders can drive change in every sector they find themselves.

My advice to young entrepreneurs and aspiring leaders is that creating change comes at a personal cost. To be a great young leader, you need to have a passion for whatever you set your mind to achieve. I was passionate about my project because I had a lived experience that, more than anything, convinced me to go ahead.

I found myself at Wesleyan. I was surrounded by people who wanted to see my project succeed as much as I did. I had the privilege of a Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship Seed Grant, which supported my project further and offered communal leadership and teamwork. At every turn of my project, I got to work with highly motivated students whose input and insight were instrumental to the growth of my initiative. The environment you find yourself in as a young leader definitely shapes your ability to succeed.

Today, I am still running my nonprofit while working as a research and data analyst for the National Board for Small Scale Industries (NBSSI). The experience I have gained as a young leader through the running of my nonprofit has come in handy in my career as a public servant. As I continue to grow, I constantly remind myself of the challenges that lay ahead of me and how I was able to overcome them, with great assistance from so many supportive and generous partners. I have learned at each turn to build meaningful relationships and cultivate a habit of persevering, even in moments of doubt.

— Ferdinand Quayson ’20

Ferdinand Quayson ’20 spent most of his childhood on the streets of Accra, Ghana. Despite a lack of strong educational support, Quayson graduated at the top of his high school class in 2012 and went on to mentor and tutor other high school students while raising funds to provide shelter and food for underprivileged children. In 2016, he learned of scholarship opportunities at Wesleyan University. He applied, was accepted, and enrolled. At Wesleyan, Quayson was president of the African Students Association, an advisory board member for the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and a board intern for the Community Foundation of Middlesex County. In 2017, he founded Young Achievers Foundation Ghana, a student-run initiative that works to create access to higher education for disadvantaged students in Ghana through scholarship workshops and innovative in-school mentorship programs. Today, Quayson runs his nonprofit while working for the National Board for Small Scale Industries (NBSSI), a department under the Ghana Ministry of Trade and Industry. He is also the coordinator for data collection for the NBSSI/MasterCard Foundation Young Africa Works project, which seeks to create dignified jobs for 39,000 youth in Ghana.

Photo: Ferdinand Quayson ’20. Photo by Alexander Peters Media.