For Ghanaian political figure Charles Adu Boahen, a career in finance was the byproduct of hard work, determination, and one critical experience in his twenties.
Adu Boahen grew up in an intellectual environment on a university campus, surrounded by highly educated adults and plentiful opportunities for learning. His father, the late Professor Emeritus Albert Adu Boahen, was a major influence. A PhD holder from the University of London’s School of Oriental Studies, he was a history professor as well as the head of the department at the University of Ghana. Albert Adu Boahen also held visiting professorships at American universities like UCLA and Binghamton. Professor Adu Boahen was so impressed with the American university system that he was determined to ensure that he could provide his kids with the opportunity to pursue their tertiary education in the States. He worked assiduously his whole life to do so.
A spirit of learning, curiosity, and engagement thus suffused the Adu Boahens’ upbringing. A strong inclination towards education was perhaps an inevitable consequence, and all four Adu Boahen children wound up with advanced degrees. But only one of the four siblings did not pursue a clearly delineated path from undergraduate education to career: Charles. With a chemical engineering degree from the University of Southern California in hand, he might have been eyeing biomedical companies or labs. But twenty-something Charles was already headed in a different direction, one that would prove remarkably rewarding.
As his junior year of college came around, Charles Adu Boahen felt bored with his major. A naturally bold and adventurous person, he was not aligned with the staid, methodical routines that characterized his engineering classes. The volatile world of finance was starting to look more attractive to him. So he took a risk between his junior and senior years and applied for a spot in the highly competitive Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) program that identified promising young students of color and matched them with internship opportunities on Wall Street, after going through a very rigorous interview and screening process. He was accepted into the program, and this provided the gateway to an internship at what was then called Salomon Smith Barney, and is now part of Citigroup. This internship changed the course of his life: after this experience, he would no longer be a chemical engineer with a curiosity about finance. He would become a finance expert with a chemical engineering background.
Adu Boahen thrived in Smith Barney’s investment banking division, learning all the ins and outs of his new discipline. After a fruitful summer, he was invited back by the firm to take a full-time position as an investment banking analyst in the Energy and Chemicals group. This was his first official full-time finance job, and it was a great fit for his personality. “I liked the fast-paced environment and the deal-by-deal transactional feeling,” he says of his time at Salomon Smith Barney. And after a few years of soaking it all up, and lots of all nighters, he identified the next step he could take to advance his career. He applied and was accepted to the prestigious business schools Harvard and Wharton, and he selected Harvard for the pursuit of his MBA.
His education at HBS took his burgeoning finance career to the next level, equipping him with necessary analytical tools and strategies. As he tackled case after case, he realized that the differentiator between leaders who make things happen and those who don’t is in one key respect: bold choice-making. “Execution is key. People that succeed, execute,” he says. “People that don’t, don’t execute.” This valuable lesson stayed with him. After receiving his MBA, Adu Boahen took a role with a Washington, D.C.-based private equity fund. Though the fund focused on African investment opportunities, Charles Adu Boahen found that this was a bit of a misnomer: the fund prioritized American companies’ investment opportunities in Africa, rather than identifying and investing in indigenous African companies already on the ground. He wondered if there were roles that satisfied both his interest in fast-paced finance and his commitment to bringing his education and skills directly home.
About a year into his tenure at the fund, he got a call from a headhunter with a proposition that fulfilled both requirements: J.P. Morgan needed an executive to run its sub-Saharan Africa operations, either from its UK offices or South Africa offices. An opportunity with a top bank to make a direct impact on his home continent was too good to pass up, and Charles Adu Boahen agreed to start the interview process. The first round of interviews took place at J.P. Morgan’s headquarters in New York City, where he was surprised and delighted to be greeted by his managing director from his Salomon Smith Barney days, who had written one of his three recommendations for business school. Wall Street is a place where hard work and connections go hand-in-hand, and this coincidence proved it. The managing director “knew my work ethic and how hard I had worked for him,” says Adu Boahen, “and what I had managed to deliver as one of his analysts. He knew exactly what I could do.” Adu Boahen got the role.
The next decade’s success was the culmination of his Wall Street, business school, and private equity experiences. Adu Boahen spent five years with J.P Morgan in South Africa, and then took a role at Standard Bank to expand their investment banking operations in West Africa. All the while, he shuttled back and forth between offices in Johannesburg and Lagos, and made dozens of visits to a whole host of African countries to drum up business. He used his expertise to cultivate new financial opportunities for JP Morgan and then Standard Bank, all across the continent. During this phase of his career, he says, “I think I really developed quite a feel for the environment and the sector and the continent.” In fact, he was ready to apply the tools he had acquired in his education and vast experience to his own pursuits. In early 2007, he decided to move back home to Ghana, where he set up a boutique investment bank called Black Star Advisors, along with a real estate investment firm.
Adu Boahen’s relentless commitment to creating financial opportunities in the African private sector had not gone unnoticed. In early 2017, after the New Patriotic Party had won the December 2016 election, the newly appointed Ghanaian finance minister approached him, even as he juggled dozens of projects, to ask for his help and expertise. As a veteran of corporate finance and an established authority on African markets, Adu Boahen was well-placed to advise the government, and he soon assumed a role as Ghana’s deputy Minister of Finance. He was then promoted to Minister of State. During the course of his tenure, he leveraged his expertise to lift Ghanaian GDP by as much as an average of 6 percentage points annually before COVID hit. He was also instrumental in the clean-up and recapitalization of the banking sector and the restructuring of the energy sector.
Once a wide-eyed intern, Charles Adu Boahen grew over the course of his career into a true finance expert and major international executive. His time with Salomon Smith Barney turned out to be a crucial turning point in his career, creating the scaffolding for decades of success in corporate, and then government finance. He is now thinking about ways to marry new technologies and financial tools to deepen financial intermediation and financial literacy in this internet age to all Ghanaians and beyond, so that his home can continue to flourish. His commitment to bringing his education and skills home has proved to be a major, and ongoing asset to Africans across the continent. One Wall Street internship made all the difference.