Every once in a while you run into a story that is as powerful as it is moving – the kind that generates sort of emotional kick. Almost as if it has all the makings of a dramatic movie, or perhaps of a French cinema – somewhat melancholic, slightly philosophical, silently poetic, at times tragic, raw and undiluted – all blended in equal measure. Life of Mohed Altrad resembles one of those spellbinding tales shot between fluidly moving frames.
Mohed Altrad doesn’t know how old he is. No document recorded the day he was born into a Bedouin tribe wandering the Syrian desert. To make birthdays easier, his children recently picked Mar. 9 out of a hat. As for the birth year, he had to choose one when he came to Montpellier, France, 46 years ago to start a new life–1948 sounded about right. Altrad didn’t speak French back then and survived on just one meal a day. He didn’t know a soul.
ALTRAD RARELY TALKS about his past, and it’s easy to see why. When he was around 4, his teenage mother fell ill and died. His father, a powerful tribal leader who had raped her, disowned him. And Altrad’s only brother, who lived with their father, died from abuse. Young Mohed was raised by his grandmother in a tent that moved with the tribe, following the rains that created oases of grazing land for their goats, sheep and camels. Altrad’s grandmother refused to let him go to school, insisting that shepherds had no need for books. He attended anyway, sneaking away before she woke, walking barefoot for an hour across the dunes.
I borrowed the title ‘you know where it ends, yo it usually depends on where you start’ from a song ‘What it’s like‘ if only to observe how apparent it is that Mohed Altrad quietly defies the logic (that, and I keep hearing the song again and again in my head). The sharp contrast between the way the story begins (childhood in Syria) and the way it ends (settled life in France) couldn’t be more crystal clear than night and day. Maybe, just maybe, humble/modest beginnings are a feature, not a bug – and, in a way, a slight nod to anti-fragile heuristic. As they say, get back up…always get back up.
(there are of course plenty of similar entrepreneurial stories and I/we have to be mindful of societal circumstances and its nuances, but this one jumped out particularly because it’s an article that has nothing to do with Silicon Valley or tech/startup in general – sort of a contrarian analog to the digital world. It’s an immigrants journey, but the destination is not the US. Neither does it involve so-called charismatic visionaries nor it purports to espouse world-changing ideas. It’s a case of slow and steady winning a race, and not of a ‘go big or go home’ popularity contest we typically see in the valley with all its buzzwords – unicorn, disruptive, hockey stick, 10x blah blah blah).