Speech in full:
Thank you, Chancellor Woodson, so much!
And thank you to every trustee and board member of this great institution for your wonderfully warm welcome I have been given today.
So… Class of 2022 – what a special group! To have graduated at any time is an achievement. To do it in a pandemic – wow!
You should be so proud. Congratulations!
A special hand, everyone, please to the graduating class of 2022!
This is a very moving moment for me. To you students who have had to struggle at times or overcome adversity – I know a little of how you feel.
I was almost thrown out of this university.
I was literally on the verge of being kicked out.
It does make me think, should I really be standing here – to receive an honorary doctorate, when I was told I couldn’t make it as an undergraduate?
It doesn’t help that this venue where I now stand centre stage has been a place for such legends from Bruce Springsteen to the Rolling Stones.
Somehow Mohamed from Egypt, or ‘Mo’ as I was known here, does not immediately trip off the tongue after such a rock ‘n’ roll roll call. But, anyway here I am.
Flattered and truly honoured.
And immensely grateful.
I came to study in America in November 1963, only a few days after JFK was shot. A few weeks later, aged 16, I enrolled as an undergraduate here.
I was thrilled to be in America. I’d been confined to bed for three years from the age of 10 after being in a near-fatal car accident in Egypt.
So I was raring to go, to embrace life in North Carolina.
And I found the American Dream.
Can I just ask, is there a better place than North Carolina to find that dream?
Of course not! This is Wolfpack territory! Go Pack!
It was the Sixties and as the saying goes, ‘if you can remember the Sixties, you probably weren’t there’. Well, I was there!
By 1966, halfway through my degree, I was at risk of flunking out.
My professors told me – I worked too hard… at partying!
And that I needed to put that energy into studying.
The simple truth was that I was about to be chucked out.
But my physics professor took pity on me.
He had intended to give me a fail. But when I pleaded and explained that failing would mean me going back to a country run on Soviet-style socialism, he took pity and offered me a life-saving deal.
I was given a second chance.
We made a deal. If I worked my socks off, I could stay.
I learnt the critical lesson that you have to control your own destiny. There are always consequences.
I had two routes. I was either going to flunk, fail and fester… or face those faults and failures and try to flourish.
Sink… or swim.
Take flight… or fight.
Bottle it… or battle for it.
The choices were stark. I had lost my way.
But that second chance allowed me to get back on track. To reconfigure my moral and social compass in every way.
And it gave me the strength and purpose to overcome a second, devastating challenge – becoming dirt poor.
My father had built a cotton textiles company. And he had been really successful which was why I could study in America.
Then one night, he lost everything. The Government of Egypt took it all away.
President Nasser – under the political sway of the Soviet Union – nationalised the entire cotton industry including my father’s company.
It meant he stole it from us. And not just the company – all my family’s land, homes, and other assets were confiscated.
My father went from being a wealthy entrepreneur to being paid 75 dollars a month on a state salary. He wrote to me and my brothers, who were studying here also, at NC State and UNC, to say there was no more money for us.
So, no money for rent or food and certainly nothing for the bills and debts in my fraternity house. Dad had no money which meant I had no money.
I had to resign from my fraternity and move into a damp and overcrowded house on Chamberlain Avenue. I went yesterday and visited the fraternity. They showed me my letter of resignation, which I wrote in 1966. I also visited Chamberlain Avenue. My house looks a lot smaller now than it did then!
I got a job as a waiter in an Italian diner called Amedeo’s.
The owner, a former football player at NC State called Dick, also gave me a second chance. He made me understand hard work as I became Mo the waiter on a dollar 25 an hour.
Slowly I saved the tips and salaries I paid off my debts and learnt to manage my own finances. My big lesson was that spending money is very different than how you spend your life. It made me realise that maybe Oscar Wilde was right when he talked about knowing ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.
I had no money, and the place we stayed in was a fleapit. But I didn’t care. I was surrounded by friends, supported by my tutors, and embraced by hospitable North Carolina.
Somebody asked me yesterday, ‘these must have been very tough times?’
Yes, they were tough times, but they were happy times.
I love this country for its dreams and for the belief that anything is possible.
I landed here just a few days after JFK was shot. I witnessed the impact of the Vietnam war. But I saw America regroup and heal.
I saw the Civil Rights movement grow and alter America. The hippy movement. The amazing music – the Beatles, the Stones, and Elvis Presley. I watched Mohammed Ali defeat Sonny Liston.
I saw the first Moon landing and like everybody else, was inspired by the science in America.
I graduated in 1968 and did an MBA at Auburn University in Alabama, returning to Egypt in 1973 following President Nasser’s death.
I went into the family cotton business which we had started again from scratch. We had our second chance to rebuild in Egypt.
And so always, I remember, gratefully, my second chance here in Raleigh.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself that what happened afterwards is for real. Mo the waiter now employs 60,000 people around the world.
We build cars and sell bulldozers.
We own hotels and have partnerships with Caterpillar, General Motors and many other companies.
We invested in Facebook, Airbnb and Uber, and established a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley that is backing more than 50 tech start-ups today, 25 of which have gone for first and second raises.
We’ve invested in schools, sports academies and football teams.
We have employees in China and California and almost everywhere in between.
My family have become philanthropists as well as capitalists.
I created a foundation to give financial support – well over four million loans – to women in Egypt.
My charity is about opportunities and second chances – the same second chance I gained here.
It is part of my life and business philosophy.
So I accept this honorary doctorate with great humility and enormous gratitude.
It is a wonderful gift, but for me the true wonder today is all of you, graduating here.
We all know there are huge challenges facing the world. Conflicts are becoming more common. Globalisation has gone into reverse. Democracy is in retreat. Climate change threatens the planet.
But seeing you all here reaffirms my optimism for the future.
Together we can all say we did not flunk! We have our second chance.
Please – when you get a second chance, seize it, learn from it, and be grateful for it.
We reached the winning post. We got there.
You are the possible.
You are the future, as I once was.
And you have the hope, energy, talent as well as drive and ambition to take all of us into the future. This is your time.
I thank you. And God bless.