Lehigh University alumni Gilles Amadou Acogny knows firsthand the value of international education, and the importance of Lehigh’s efforts to engage with Africa and recruit international students from the continent

Africa is the richest continent in the world in terms of resources like cobalt, diamonds, and uranium, and yet the world’s poorest continent in terms of wealth per capita. But Gilles Amadou Acogny ‘85G knows Africa is particularly rich in another area: the sheer potential for innovation, creativity, and success among its people.

Few are in a better position to understand that potential than Acogny, the co-founder and CEO of Acosphere Ltd., a world-class business consultancy helping transform organizations and accelerate growth. The firm began in London, but Acogny quickly shifted his focus to his home continent of Africa, where Acosphere Ltd. now conducts 70% of its business.

“With proper governance, proper leadership, proper vision and purpose, the continent of Africa can just absolutely shine,” said the Senegal-born Acogny. “When you take it down to the human level, there is potential left, right, and center. There is so much value they can bring if they have the right opportunities, which is why they need to know about Lehigh University.”

Acogny earned his Master’s of Public Administration at Lehigh in 1985, and credits the university with giving him a global perspective that has helped fuel his successful 30-year career. He understands the importance of efforts by Lehigh’s Office of International Affairs (OIA) to engage with Africa and recruit international students from the continent.

“Some of the bigger universities in the U.S. have picked up on the potential from Africa and are creating programs targeting students there,” Acogny said. “Lehigh has the potential to leapfrog some of those universities, and make sure that the people of Africa understand the high-quality, structured approach Lehigh has towards educating the students of the world.”

An International Education and Career

Gilles Amadou Acogny
Gilles Amadou Acogny

Acogny knows from personal experience the value of an international education. His mother was the first woman in Francophone Africa on the council of the mayor at Gorée, and his father was the first Francophone African to enter the United Nations in the early 1960s. This global upbringing meant Acogny was exposed to countries throughout the world, and spoke five languages by age 10.

“My parents were pioneers in many ways, and they gave me a global education at a time when global education didn’t really exist,” he said. As an adult, Acogny went on to live in six continents, having spent at least 24 hours in 60 different countries, including 20 in Africa.

After earning his master’s degree in English at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, Acogny sought to continue his education in a high-quality, globally-focused institution. That led him to Lehigh, where he said he conducted a great deal of research and studied a wide variety of concepts and case studies that would be directly applicable to his future business career.

Acogny said he learned a great deal at Lehigh, particularly about what he considered the quantitative American system, as compared to the more qualitative European environment. The education he received here gave him a richer understanding of his future industry, and helped him find the first job opportunities of his career, Acogny said.

“My eyes were opened to things I would never have learned if I hadn’t gone to Lehigh,” said Acogny, who has remained an engaged Lehigh alum and recently attended the Future Makers of London event hosted by Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble ‘82. “Lehigh opened many doors for me in many ways.”

After graduating Lehigh, Acogny began a rich corporate career by working for 15 years at Xerox, starting off as a salesman in Paris. After management assignments in the UK and the USA, Acogny was tasked with streamlinign the company's strategie as the General Manager of Xerox Egypt. Three years later, he became the Marketing Director of Xerox Germany. Later in his career, he was Senior VP of Sales & Marketing at global companies such as Misys and Aggreko.

Shifting Focus to Africa

Gilles Amadou Acogny speaking to others at a networking event
Gilles Amadou Acogny at the Future Makers of London event hosted in March by Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble ‘82

In 2005, Acogny and his wife Nadia Mensah-Acogny created Acosphere Ltd., at first working exclusively on large private equity companies with billions of dollars assets managed, like AEA and Apax Partners. Their focus was almost entirely in the United States and United Kingdom, until one day they received a call from the Ministry of Africa, part of the UK Foreign Office.

They were one of 30 British companies invited to accompany the British Ministry on a tour of Francophone African countries, like Senegal and the Ivory Coast.

“At first, we thought it was a joke!” Acogny laughed. “Why call us instead of one of the bigger consultancies valued at billions of pounds? But then we realized I’m from Senegal, we have knowledge of the whole region, and we can bring a familiarity and experience that they perhaps couldn’t find among the senior partners at places like the Deloitte or KPMG UK offices.”

After the tour, Gilles and Nadia decided to shift more of Acosphere Ltd.’s attention to African nations. “We decided, ‘Shouldn’t we, as Africans, be more focused on helping grow the African continent?’” Acogny said. “And ultimately, that’s what we decided to do.”

Initially, they dedicated 30% of the company’s business exclusively on consulting and training for companies in Nigeria. They continued operating for two years until new restrictions were imposed by a government change, and which prompted them to shift their focus to African Francophone countries like Senegal.

Their work with African countries led them to expand Acosphere Ltd. to add new offerings like sales training. They also began offering training in public speaking, which they identified as a particular need in the African business community, especially compared to their counterparts in Europe.

Acosphere Ltd. became known as a leader in this area, providing public speaking instruction to more than 6,000 people on the African continent, Acogny said. Today, 70% of Acosphere Ltd.’s business is focused on providing assistance and consulting to companies based in Africa.

Lehigh’s Engagement with Africa

Lehigh University has engaged Africa in myriad ways, including study abroad programs in countries like Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, as well as internships in Ghana, South Africa, and Uganda through the Iacocca International Internship Program. Lehigh’s Africana Studies Program also offers experiential learning, research and travel funding, and alumni connections.

Additionally, this will mark Lehigh’s sixth year as an Institute Partner for the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. Through the program, Lehigh hosts emerging business leaders from Africa for a six-week Leadership Institute, with participants undertaking community service projects, assisting South Side Bethlehem businesses, and much more.

Allan Goodman, CEO of the Institute for International Education (IIE), echoed Acogny’s comments on the importance of engaging with Africa. The 18- to 24-year-old population in places like Africa, South Asia, South America, and the Middle East will experience rapid growth in upcoming years, Goodman said, and U.S. college and universities have the capacity that European institutions lack to accommodate those international students.

“There are enormous middle classes in Kenya and South Africa who are saving money for education so they can afford American tuitions,” he said. “U.S. institutions will have to be ready to recruit in places we haven’t traditionally recruited before, and they will need the support of alumni on the ground, so parents in those countries know they can get a high-quality education in places like Lehigh University.”