The Brave Ones

This African engineer thought business people were crooks until he founded a company and became a billionaire

Key Points
  • Mo Ibrahim was raised to get an education and idolized scientists such as Marie Curie
  • He was raised to respect professions such as engineering and medicine and says he was suspicious of business people.
  • Ibrahim founded African mobile network Celtel in 1998 and sold it for $3.4 billion in 2005.
Mo Ibrahim, founder and chairman of Mo Ibrahim Foundation participates in a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

When Mo Ibrahim was growing up in Alexandria, Egypt, he idolized scientists such as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein and eventually became a telecommunications engineer.

Fast-forward several decades and Ibrahim is now a billionaire business person — something he never expected would happen, because he didn't initially trust those running companies.

"Because of my (up)bringing, because of … my social background … we assume businessmen are crooks or people involved in funny stuff. We respect professions, you know. You need to be a doctor, an engineer, to earn honest money and to do (the) right work, but guys involved in wheeling and dealing, we are suspicious of that," he told CNBC's "The Brave Ones."

Ibrahim has two engineering degrees and a PhD in mobile communications and worked for the U.K.'s BT (then British Telecom) as its technical director but left after becoming frustrated with the bureaucracy he found there.

"It was strange, because I'm not supposed to be the business (person), I'm supposed to be the technocrat. And I go work in the big organization. So what do you do when you get fed up working in a large company and the bureaucracy? I said, 'OK, I'm going to be a consultant.'"

He founded technology consultancy MSI in 1989, selling it for around $900 million in 2000, and set up African mobile operator Celtel in 1998. He sold that company for $3.4 billion in 2005.

"I started as an academic, then I became an engineer and a manager, then became (an) unintended businessman or (an) accidental businessman," Ibrahim told "The Brave Ones."

Ibrahim has since started a foundation that aims to improve political leadership and governance in Africa.