Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mo Ibrahim on Good Governance

Mo Ibrahim: Engineer, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, African, Activist, Leader (photo source: Mo Ibrahim Foundation)

Mo Ibrahim is one of my heroes. I first heard about him through a friend of mine, also dedicated to Africa's development. "He is one of Africa's most successful entrepreneurs," he said. I was immediately intrigued. Who was this man who had grown up in Sudan in rather minimal circumstances, who had gotten a PhD in computer engineering, and started one of the world's most successful mobile companies with 500 quid??!! How did he do it, and why did he do it??

So I began reading about him. I read about how passionate he was about the development of Africa's leaders...this Sudanese man who always had a big smile. He had started an innovative Mo Ibrahim Prize for Leadership, and was giving out scholarships to young and promising African students. And I badly wanted to meet him.

Two months ago, I finally did. He was invited to be Chief Guest at our School's anniversary meeting. And he did not disappoint.

The day he arrived, the University had a whole day of activities planned out for him. They were thrilled to have one of the world's most successful entrepreneurs in their midst. The school was buzzing with photographers, and all manner of people in suits waiting to make a big deal about him.

In the meantime, the man himself arrived with an entourage of one (his personal assistant) in a rather non-descript car. No one knew that he was there or to run out and take his picture. He walked in and appeared a little lost, found his way to the photo session where he managed to surprise everyone by showing up with little fanfare. And just as quietly and efficiently as he came, he disappeared after.

In the evening, I showed up at the lecture he was to give. In the tradition of my school to put its best foot forward, the lecture was held off-site at a fancy 5-star hotel ballroom. Half of my work-floor (including myself) was there to usher people in fancy suits around. Mo showed up early, again with just his personal assistant and a throng of Singaporeans following him around. All he seemed to want to do was find a reliable men's room where he could relieve himself and then relax. I think he was happy to just be left alone.

His talk was marvelous. Very honest, no BS. I really liked the guy. He had no frills about him and he was unafraid to say what he came to talk about: that we are mucking up our world with crappy leadership and governance, and that there were ways to fix it. I highly recommend watching his talk here (unfortunately it cannot be embedded). Its eye-opening.

I later had the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one, and asked him two questions:

Who are your heroes??
He said that growing up, he had three people's pictures on his wall: Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and someone else who I can't remember (totally my fault...darn!)

What's the best piece of advice he has ever gotten??
He quoted an Arabic saying he had oft-heard growing up in Sudan. He translated it into something like this, "you come into the earth with nothing, and you will die with nothing." So he wants to make and do as much good as he can with what God has given him in the time that he is alive, because come death, he won't take any of this back with him.
Read more about the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and Mo.

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