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From the bedouin tent to the luxury of Monaco: the incredible story of Mohed Altrad

by - 10 March

The story of Mohed Altrad sounds like a tale from The Thousand and One Nights. He was born in the desert of Syria. His mother died on the day he was born and his Bedouin father gave him away to his grandparents at age 4. He was destined to be a shepherd. But in 2015 he was named World Entrepreneur of the Year by EY in Monaco. Altrad is a billionaire businessman, founder of the world's leading construction industry supplier Altrad Group.
"Do what you think you are good in, believe in yourself and keep hope. Look at me - a guy who had zero chance to become what he is, but he believes. He believes firstly in life, he loves life and the others independently of their religion, color or country of origin".
This is the advice of Mohed Altrad to young people he shared with me in a phone interview. You can listen to it here:

Mr. Altrad, if you have to define your path from an orphaned bedouin in the Syrian desert to the world enterpreneur of the year with one word what would be that word?
Maybe contrast is the word. Because I was in Monaco - a very beautiful place and everything was fine. But I remember my conditions of birth in the desert and there was only sand and little bit of water and a lot of camels. As you see these two words are totally opposite. So maybe contrast. It was important to me because I'm a Syrian, an Arab, but I won something for France. So I'm very happy to be acknowledged all over the world.
The other thing is maybe that being an entrepreneur and trying to accumulate money and the companies and number of employees is not enough. Maybe it's important that we find a link with the society because the society it's full of poor people who need a lot of help. So that was one of my aims in life all the time because I remember from where I come.
Personally I am very interested in financing of different campaigns against the cancer or supporting abandoned children.

What is the most defining moment in your life?
It's difficult to tell. My story is one of a difficult life. Especially when I was young it's full of violence. Probably the most defining point was when my mother, who was maybe 12 years old, was abused by the head of the tribe who is actually my father. The first abuse resulted in the birth of my brother and this brother stayed with the father and he finally killed him by bad treatment. Since my mother didn't live with him she was a poor woman so he abused her for the second time which resulted in my birth. I was lucky because I didn't stay with him, he didn't like me to stay. So I grew up with my grandmother and then very shortly my mother died. As you can see she has very life and this is probably the most defining moment in my life.

How this moment defined your life after that?
I live with the idea that I'm somebody who had a debt to pay back. Who promised something. And I am in the situation, in the mindset that I would never achieve this promise and that's just keeping me going, and keep me motivated to create things. Money was never an objective in my life, it's a result.

Does pain or suffering build character?
I thought about this question. Can we be happy without pain? And I can say i didn't find the answer. But if you ask me whether it is a necessary to have pain to be lucky or to be happy I would say yes.
Because life is full with unhappy moments. If you try to list the really happy moments in your life maybe you could find it's very little compared to the whole life. Maybe this is pessimistic view of life and I don't want to be pessimistic. I want to be optimistic because I'm not allowed to be a pessimistic.

And are you happy now?No because  I have this debt to my mother. I know that I would be happy one day which will never happen. Because it's the day when I can revive my mother. But I know it would never happen. Please do not misunderstand me - I'm okay. I tried to find alternatives for that, to be helpful, to be available for people.

As you said you had a very difficult life. What did help you to not give up? What gave your strength to continue?
When you are few years old - 5 years old, you don't really think or make calculations. So probably it it was not a thinking but an instinct of life. Because I want just to be alive, just to carry on, just to breathe. I used this image in the past. Like an animal you put in a closed room, there is no  door, there is no window and then all of the sudden you open a very, very small space. And naturally the animal will go, will try to go trough this small space even he doesn't succeed to get out. It happened that I succeed to get out from this totally closed space. When you go through a very small hole you think it's the end but you go trough it even it's the last bit of air.

Have you ever asked yourself where would be you, what would happen with you if it wasn't that childless couple that took you under their wings?
I would have been a shepherd and probably killed by I don't know whom. Because when I was a child I saw  people killing each other.

Have you ever tried to go back to your birthplace?
I arrived to France in 1970 and I went back two years after. After few days I went back to France, I didn't stay. One of things that really pushed me very hard to leave again the country of Syria was becasue I tried to find out where my mother was buries but I didm't find. Somebody just eliminated any traits. And whe I look at the situation - she had no life, she didn't live as a woman, she died, and somebody killed her again. And I didn't go back.

How do you feel now when you watch what's happening there?
In my heart I'm still Oriental but if you see me on the streets of France you could say he is Spanish, Italian, or from France. But nevertheless in my heart I am Oriental but this piece never expresed itself because I am surrounded by French, by other nationalities. But none of them can resemble to the people I knew when I was child. In me live two civilizations - the Oriental  which is very strong because it has traditions, because it's old. And in me also there is this Western peice because I received my education here. And now in the same person I have two persons. But can you be two persons at the same time? And this is one of the strange feelings I have internally.
Back to your question what I think about Syria. Firstly, I don't know because I have not been there   for the last 40 years.

How do you define success? What is success for you? Are you a succesfull man?
I think that I would be successfully if I'm useful for life. And this is really what I'm trying to do trough economy, trough literature, through sport. Because I am at the shareholder of a rugby club which is one of the famous in the world. Why I'm with rugby? Because every year we have a teaching school where we have 1000 children and half of the day they practice rugby together and the other half they have lessons. We select them because they are in difficult situations. So it's my way to be useful and helpful.

What advice would you give to young people - what should they study today to succeed tomorrow?
Do what you think you are good in. And just believe in yourself, and keep hope. Look at me - a guy who had a zero chance to become what he is. But he believed, he believes firstly in life, he loved life and the others no matter of their religion or colour.

You said you try to make the people who work for you happy. Why this is important for you?
Firstly, from practical point of view.  I think if you are happy, you would be a better journalist.  And if I'm happy I'll probably be a better writer. This is very important. For people to be more efficient they need to be happy.
If you look at a company as an isolated thing I don't think it's right way to look at it. Because you work for a company, I work for a company. There are 17,000 people working for Altrad Group. But at the end of the day they go back home like you and me. So we are back to earth, to our problems as human beings. So there is a connection between life and company. That means a company should really take care of its people.

What is the message you want to send to people? What should we care about mostly? What is the most important thing in life?

What inspires you personally? What drives you?
 The love of people.

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