Ghana-born power executive views heritage from both sides of the Atlantic

By Anna B. Mitchell

With an easygoing smile, Duke Energy executive Kodwo Ghartey-Tagoe navigates effortlessly between the worlds of his parents and his children.

Ghartey-Tagoe, whose first name is pronounced “kojo,” grew up in Ghana on the west coast of Africa, the son of a renowned national television journalist.

His home nation won independence from the British on March 6, 1957, just six years before his own birth. For his three daughters, Independence Day is the Fourth of July.

One of his few regrets: Having traveled only once as a family with his wife, Phyllis, and all his girls to visit their parents and extended family in Africa. He met Phyllis in Washington D.C., but they are from the same part of Ghana.

“People who don’t know each other tend to fear each other,” he says. “And once you get to know them, you tend to find out there is nothing to fear and they are very much like you. They have families like you, they love their kids like you do.”

The 55-year-old power executive has risen quickly in corporate America since graduating from Duke University law school in 1988. He practiced privately in Washington, D.C., and Virginia for 14 years, mastering federal and state utility law and representing water companies, power companies, gas companies and phone companies before joining Duke Energy in 2002.

Initially hired as Duke’s chief regulatory counsel and later rising to senior vice president of state and federal regulatory legal support, Ghartey-Tagoe has since January 2017 been Duke Energy’s South Carolina president, making him one of the company’s top-ranked employees and an influential member of the state’s business community.

Ghartey-Tagoe is a board member with the state chamber of commerce, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation and the United Way in Greenville, and he oversees Duke operations that serve 760,000 power customers across 30 counties.

Still, while Ghartey-Tagoe is a self-described businessman, responsible for the financial performance of Duke’s South Carolina operations, when he tells his own story, it starts and ends with education — the Methodist boarding school for boys in Cape Coast, Ghana, that his father (and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan) also attended; the elite Canadian university his father nudged him toward; and the Durham campus he fell in love with while visiting his sister, herself a student at East Carolina University at the time.

When you ask him what he is most proud of, he describes his three daughters, graduates of Rice, Vanderbilt and Davidson, and their shared love of education.

“I celebrate their accomplishments like they are my own,” he said.

Ask him about his passions, and he will point to the nonprofit he started in 2000 that helps get more books, science lab equipment and computers into schools in Ghana. Class sizes there have ballooned — a nation of 18 million when he left in 1982 is now pushing 30 million.

Black history month for Ghartey-Tagoe is about eliminating prejudice and racism — neither of which he sees as unique to the United States — through the power of education.

“When I think of black history month, I think of how little we know of black history,” Ghartey-Tagoe said. “How little society knows about black history. And how little is taught in our schools about black history.”

Ghartey-Tagoe, who became a U.S. citizen in 1998, describes the history of black Africans in the United States within their global context. Ghana, once known as the Gold Coast of Africa, suffered centuries of oppression under European colonialism and the New World slave trade. Ghartey-Tagoe’s home country maintains massive, ancient slave fortresses along its coastline as a memorial and tourist attraction to that dark time.

August 2019 will mark the 400th anniversary since enslaved Africans were first brought to the present-day United States, Ghartey-Tagoe points out.

“I am still learning even about Ghanaian history,” he said. “It’s amazing the things my kids were learning in school. It’s so U.S.-focused. I came from a culture in Africa where we were learning about the world at large.”

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