Ghanaian Dean of business school touches American children
The Junior Achievement materials he toted in are orderly and concise, but Mr. Kojo is taking a really long time to read his story.
It’s a simple tale about Megan’s search for a birthday present for her friend’s sleepover party. But Mr. Kojo keeps straying.
He tells about the time he discovered a mouse in his sleeping bag on a camping trip.
“Eek!” he tells them. “I’m afraid of mice.”
“So Megan went to the toy store to look for a gift,” he reads.
“Who loves a toy store?” he pauses to ask them. “My favorite is the dollar store.”
Mr. Kojo loves a bargain.
Kojo Quartey is the perfect guy to teach these Kentwood kindergartners about money.
An accomplished economist, he’s the dean of the school of business at Davenport University. He’s also one of the best bargain hunters in town. Store managers can sense him coming, with his well-honed haggling skills and passion for discounts.
As a child, he helped his mother make wigs for her wig business, tying on hair using a loom.
A chronic haggler, the economist rarely pays full price for anything. “You can negotiate for a better price on just about anything,” he says. Did he get this from living in Africa? “I got it from being cheap,” he says with a laugh.
His must-see TV is “Desperate Housewives” on Sunday nights.
He’s a pingpong player and former member of the Grand Rapids Table Tennis Club.
As a boy in Ghana, he went to a revival under a big tent with his dad, to see a famous preacher. “The preacher was also a prophet and could tell the future,” he recalls. “He put his hand on my head and said, ‘You will be a teacher.’ I was so disappointed. I was morose. My idea of a teacher was, ‘one plus one is two, repeat after me,’ not realizing it could be so much more.” He went on to teach before becoming a university dean.
The man who’s so thrifty with his money scatters his time all over town. He’s a Big Brother and mentors kids at Pinewood Elementary School in Jenison and at Ottawa Hills High School. He coaches youth soccer and teaches Junior Achievement classes.
At Davenport, Quartey, 49, oversees operations of the largest private business school program in Michigan, including academic
programs on 17 campuses. He supervises three associate deans and oversees more than 450 faculty members.
Quartey was in charge of readying Davenport’s Donald W. Maine School of Business for accreditation last fall and accomplished the process, which typically takes two years, in a few months, says Davenport’s provost, David Fleming.
“We said to him, ‘Do you think we can do it?’ and he said what he always says — ‘Why can’t we do it?'”
The accreditor, the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education, cites the final self-study overseen by Quartey as a model for other universities, Fleming says.
One of Quartey’s favorite things is talking to students, Fleming says.
“He has this great ability to connect with people,” the provost says. “He’s funny, he’s charming. First, you see this very distinguished-looking man. He’s dignified. He doesn’t make decisions quickly or lightly. Then you see he has this twinkle in his eye. You see his sharp wit, this gregarious personality.
“His community service is amazing,” Fleming says. “We’re always telling our students about the importance of giving back. It’s great to be able to point to Kojo and say, ‘Look at him — if you can do a third of what your dean does, that would be great.'”
“I wanted to be a philanthropist,” Quartey muses. Then he grins. “But I just didn’t have enough money. So I decided to be a philanthropist with my time.”
Quartey refers to himself good-naturedly as “a nerd.” His round glasses tend to slide down his nose. He’s a brainy suit-and-tie guy who wears bow ties “that I tie myself.”
He loves watching “Jeopardy” and shouts out the answers to his TV.
“I get quite a few right,” he says. “But if it’s medieval art, I’m done for.”
A difficult journey
It was a long, tough journey to this place.
He grew up in Ghana, Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world. His path to becoming an American university dean was filled with struggle, as he lived in a rat-infested apartment and sometimes slept in his car.
He knows the value of money. Early on, he learned the value of helping.
He was 10 when his family of nine moved from Ghana to Washington, D.C., for his dad’s job as Ghana’s minister of foreign affairs.
One day, he was in a Safeway grocery store with his mom, Victoria, and dad, Ebenezer.
“An old lady asked me to carry her groceries out,” he recalls. “She thought I worked there. So I carried her bags to her car. She was about to hand me some money, and I could see my mom in our car going like this — no, no, no,” he says, vigorously shaking his head. He smiles. “That was my first lesson in service.
“My dad always said, ‘When you do a favor, you should never expect anything.’ By design, it’s not meant to be repaid.”
His home in Ghana, he says, “was the place where anybody who needed anything came.”
Even though there were seven children to support.
He threw up on the airplane trip here, but Kojo loved the U.S. He discovered “The Addams Family” and comic books and got an all-American job as a paperboy delivering The Washington Post.
When the Quarteys moved back to Ghana three years later, Kojo’s teen friends barely knew him.
“I had gotten soft,” he says. His study habits had slipped. Too much TV, too much soccer. He had forgotten how to speak the local language. He wore his hair in a big afro.
“I was this American kid.”
The boy who used to win all the spelling bees struggled in school, until he took classes in accounting and economics and was recharged.
“Oh, it changed my world,” he says happily. “Trade, buying and selling, the debit and the credits.” He lists them in delight, as if they were ice cream toppings.
“All of a sudden, I was awake,” he says. After high school graduation in 1977, Kojo wanted to return to the U.S. to study accounting. His dad wanted him to study in Ghana and become a doctor.
“I said, ‘Daddy, no. I’m an American. I want to go to America.’ My dad and I didn’t see eye to eye.”
He read Ebony and Jet magazines and worked as a messenger with Ghana Airways while he applied to colleges in the U.S. He was accepted at Morgan State University in Baltimore and left home.
Trouble with rats
From the beginning, Quartey struggled financially. He paid $50 a month as a boarder in a decrepit house in a rough neighborhood, living with an old lady named Olivia.
“The rats were bigger than my head,” he recalls grimly. “I’d get up to go to the bathroom, and there would be the rats. I’d go to the kitchen to cook, and there would be a big rat on top of the stove. I wouldn’t eat that night.”
He shudders. “I am deathly afraid of rats.”
When Olivia’s kids moved her out to live with them, Kojo hunkered down in the rat house alone, until the utility companies switched off the heat and power on a cold day in October.
“I go buy a couple of candles,” he recalls. “I had an exam the next day. I sat in the cold and tried to study. With my friends the rats. It’s dark. I hear them, everywhere.”
He finally fled, heading to the campus library. When it closed for the night, Quartey hid under a table and slept there.
He slept on friends’ couches, loaded up on credit hours, went to school studying accounting through the summers and graduated in two-and-a-half years.
He loved money. He just didn’t have any.
He went on to graduate school at Mississippi State University, sleeping for a while in his car at a gas station.
“I wanted to make my father proud,” he says. “That’s what drove me. He didn’t want me to come to the U.S. He didn’t think I could make it on my own.”
“I was in awe of him. I wanted to be like him. To me, he wasn’t an ordinary man.”
He’s quiet for a minute, then tells of the tradition in his homeland, in which family members share food from one big bowl, dipping in to eat with their right hand. It was emotional for him, returning to Ghana as an educated man, to eat with his father.
“I had a college degree, summa cum laude, and here I was, eating from the same bowl.” He gets choked up at the memory. “That was symbolic.”
Quartey earned his master’s degree, then his Ph.D. in economics. Then, just as a revival tent preacher had predicted when he was a boy, he became a teacher.
He looked to historically black colleges and universities for jobs, teaching first at Lincoln University in Missouri, then Talladega College in Alabama.
Everywhere he worked, as he bolstered his professional resume with accomplishments, Quartey hit the streets of his communities to help. He mentored, founded tutoring programs for at-risk kids, chaired campaigns for United Way and March of Dimes.
He piled his college students into his car and took them with him to elementary schools twice a week to read to kids.
“One day, I was at Wal-Mart and this little kid, maybe 5 years old, peeks around a corner at me and I hear him say, ‘Mommy! Mommy! It’s him! It’s the reader!'”
He recently ran into a tough kid he remembered from his volunteer work at Ottawa Hills High School.
“I said, ‘Hey, what are you up to?’ He said, ‘I’m at GRCC. You really made a difference in my life.’
“My preference is they come to Davenport,” Quartey says with a smile, “but not everybody can afford it.”
On the job at Davenport, Quartey is purposeful and proud. He happily tells how Davenport students pass the CPA exam at four times the national average.
As the economy flounders, he talks passionately about how to bolster it.
“Small businesses create jobs,” he says. “We teach students not just how a business runs, but how to run a business. How to be entrepreneurial.”
Then Quartey talks about “psychic income.”
“Satisfaction,” he says.
He mentors two teens, brothers Brandon, 15, and Reggie, 13, through the Big Brother program. A couple of times a week, he leaves his Davenport office at 3 p.m., picks them up after school and takes the boys back to his office, where he helps them with their homework before they head out for basketball or ping pong.
Sometimes, he takes them to his church, African Community Fellowship Church, where the tough-guy teens get to see Kojo the softy happily hold babies.
Subtly, persistently, he drums in respect and manners.
“Their habits have started to change,” Quartey says of the boys. “It’s tangible. They say ‘hello’ now. ‘Please.’ ‘Thank you.’ I tell them, ‘When you get in the car, we’re gonna talk. There will be no cell phone. We’re gonna talk about your day, your challenges.'”
He smiles. “You begin to see your efforts come to fruition.”
He bites the end off a candy cane and chews thoughtfully.
“You may not remember what people say to you,” he says, “but you remember what they do.”
Quartey has five kids of his own, ages 6 to 21. Three live in Ghana with his ex-wife, and two live in Maryland with their mother.
“It’s hard to be away from them,” he says, gazing at photos of the kids he has posted all over his office walls. They talk on the phone often, he says, and e-mail, he says. He recently returned from a trip to Ghana, where he always spends Christmas.
Back at Southwood Elementary in Kentwood, Mr. Kojo helps the kindergartners make cardboard banks and shows them how to identify coins. The man who wrote his master’s thesis on “A Comparative Analysis of Supported and Unsupported Commodities in the U.S.” happily calls out to 5-year-olds, “Isaac, show me a nickel. Max, show me a dime.”
Before he leaves, they all rush him for hugs and chorus, “Thank you, Mr. Kojo.”
Then he’s off, walking really fast, to another classroom visit in another school.
“If you have a passion for something, you can always find time for it,” he says. “You need to find time for it.
“Just seeing those young, bright minds taking it all in is refreshing to me,” Quartey says, striding down the hall. “Maybe they’ll remember that guy who came in and talked about money — and how you should help other people.”
Credit: Terri Finch Hamilton