On Resilience by Benjamin Obeng, Mastercard Foundation Scholar Alumnus at Arizona State University

Benjamin Obeng is a Lead Addictive Manufacturing Engineer at Siemens Healthineers, USA. He is also the CEO of  3Dinkra, VBeck, Zyleme and a Mastercard Foundation Scholar from Ghana who recently graduated from Arizona State University.

Below is a speech that he delivered as the keynote speaker for this year’s Fall Reception organized by the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at Arizona State University.

I consider myself as a modern-day griot and so as a storyteller, I would like to begin by telling you one. A story is told of a young lady travelling with her dad. As she was driving, there was a massive sandstorm and so like many other cars, she decided to park and wait for the storm to die down. But her dad insisted they continue their journey and she obliged. Gradually, they got past the sandstorm. Her dad then told her to park, so she did. He asked, “where are the rest of the cars?”. “They are still in the storm,” she replied. He said, “Sometimes you have to find ways to keep driving through the storm. Pulling over only makes the storm last longer.”

Today, I am here to talk about a common but essential parameter in our life’s journey and it’s one of the defining arsenals in challenging times like these where half of the world seems to be at a halt and the other half in slow motion. Whether it’s all your classes switched to virtual mode, or being a Mastercard Foundation Scholar thousands of miles away in your home country or looking for internships or jobs in a situation which looks like COVID-19  just hired someone to raid the entire job market of opportunities;  In all these, WE MUST BE RESILIENT!

It is said that resilience is the ability to recover from difficult experiences and setbacks, to adapt, move forward and sometimes even experience growth. Resilience is the ability to defy all odds and navigate our way through sandstorms whilst everyone seems to be pulling over. As Mastercard Foundation Scholars, we are not called to don the armour of resilience; we are scholars because of our inherent resilience. We all have that spirit woven to the core of our hearts. It might be dim but with just the right spark, it will be rekindled. We all have stories bearing scars to prove our resilience and as Komla Dumor puts it, “You’ve tasted the dust in the alleyways.”

Growing up, I had little to look up to. My dad was a farmer and my mum, a trader. But like the farmers they were, they dug deep down and sowed the little seeds of their vision they had for themselves in me. They took me to one of the best basic schools in the city which didn’t make sense because it took money to keep me there. Each day, there was always a 100% chance my school would dismiss me for non-payment of fees, but there was a 200% chance I would sneak back into class because I feared the sad look on my mum’s face more than the whip of my teachers. Like a farmer prepares the land for the rains, the resilience of my parents tilled my mind, giving room for seeds of dreams, hope and a strong desire to break past the thick but invisible boundaries that surrounded me.

One thought I have held unto throughout my journey is that The opportunity to fail is more than to stay where I am. And so, the only way is forward. The only way is to stay resilient, there is more ahead than behind.” From starting BenO Electricals; a door to door electrical repairs startup back on the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) campus, to setting up 3Dinkra; a 3D printing startup in Ghana currently supporting the biggest hospital in West Africa with donations of 3D printed Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) or even  Zyleme in the logistics space, I have always been motivated by this thought.

Today as we burn the torch of resilience, there are a couple of thoughts I want to share with you.

One, dream; but don’t just dream, dream big. Regardless of your current state, dream big because the last time I checked, it was free to dream. I remember when I was in 5th grade, I used to keep a book filled with my ideas and designs and I wrote in code because I did not want anyone to steal my ideas. This came back to me two years ago when filling my first patent for my startup, VBeck. My mentor and supervisor, Dr Patrick Phelan, had given me that room to dream and be part of something amazing. Our dreams have a way of growing into hope and hope into actions and actions into achievement as long as it is punctuated by resilience every step of the way.

Two, don’t hesitate to call for help. Whether it is from family back home, professors, friends or the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program team on your campus, sometimes all you need is just talking to someone. The one on one meetings with the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program team at Arizona State University was priceless.

Three, take chances!  Most times, the worst case is a NO and sometimes, the difference between a no and where we are now isn’t that different. So why don’t you take that chance? Whether it is visiting companies around and directly asking for internships or volunteering opportunities or emailing a professor to work on research. It was in my final year when I found out that Dr Klause Lackner (one of the biggest names in the Carbon capture space) had a wonder material which was capable of capturing CO2 from the atmosphere 10 times better than plants. But the material was so sensitive that all known manufacturing processes would kill the material — anything above 50 degrees Celsius. I had thought of a way to make this possible but needed samples from him to test my process. It was a different lab, I had my own Masters project to work on, I had an on-campus job, I was volunteering in an off-campus company, running VBeck part-time, and on top of that, I was on academic probation. Why bother proving that I could make it work. So, I got to work, I spent my stipend on a particular type of 3d printer, got some samples, run test prints, and as they say, the rest was history. Although I am out of Arizona State University, I still work on projects with Dr Lackner.

Four, failure is part of the process.  It is nothing but a data point. My last semester, I was on academic probation as I had made bad decisions which affected my GPA. Like a child in a candy store I pounced on every opportunity I saw. Failure is part of the journey, but would you make it overwhelm you? Dust yourself up and move forward as it is part of growth. There are two ways to get to the top: you either jump or grow. When you jump up, gravity brings you back down but when you have experienced growth with all its scars, you stay up. I graduated that semester with a 4.0 GPA, filed a utility patent with my project, registered a company, won $10,000 in startup funding, started research work in Dr Lackner’s lab which Scholars after me have worked on, and connected with some of the most amazing people in the process.

In conclusion, the actual journey can’t be defined by any parametric equation. It is filled with highs and lows and what most people see is the start and finish but what we know is that in between the start and finish is a constant and that constant is nothing but resilience. That is what Africa needs to see in you to change the narrative. There are a lot of storms we face on the continent but don’t pull over, keep driving.