Frank F. Islam
The International Student House
October 30, 2018
Thank you very much for that kind introduction. It is truly a special privilege for me to be with you students from around the world this evening.
As I look at you. I see me in you. I see the future of the world. You are hope of tomorrow. You are promise and potential of the world.
I have been asked to speak with you about my experience as an immigrant who came to the United States and became a successful entrepreneur, to provide some advice based upon what I have learned; and, to share my thoughts on the future of international education. I will do so.
Let me begin, however, with the following lines from a popular American song that some of you may be familiar with.
What the world needs now
Is love sweet love
That’s the only thing
There is just too little of…
Those are the opening lines from a best-selling song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in 1965. Sadly, these lyrics are truer today than when they were written over one half a century ago. I will come back to these lines latter.
Frank Islam’s Journey
Let me turn first to my journey.
I came to the United States from India at the age of fifteen to pursue the American dream. At that young age, I wasn’t quite sure how I would achieve that dream. But, I knew even then that being a business owner would be part of it.
I also knew that it would mean being apart from my family and developing my own career track with little parental or professional guidance. But, it was also an opportunity. That’s the way I saw it – an opportunity to define myself in America, the land of opportunity.
That process of defining myself here in America had five stages:
- Getting a good education
- Doing my apprenticeship
- Becoming an entrepreneur
- Building a strong team that shared my vision and values
- Moving on to other things
I got my bachelor and master degrees in computer science at the University of Colorado. That gave me the knowledge that I needed to go into business.
When I graduated with my advanced degree, I was not prepared to go directly to owning a business. That’s because I didn’t know how businesses operated. I had no real exposure to business prior to starting college.
I knew I needed experience before launching my own venture. So, I worked with two major information technology firms in the Washington DC area for about a decade to learn the ropes and the ins and outs of doing business with the government. That gave me the skills and the real-world grounding that I needed to start my own business.
After doing my apprenticeship, in 1994, I purchased the QSS Group, an Information technology firm for $45,000. Within thirteen years, along with my key management team, we took that firm from a workforce of 1 employee – me – to more than 3,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue.
My team of talented senior managers was central to everything. Success in business is a team sport. It’s we not me, who made it happen.
In 2007, I sold my company to Perot Systems. That sale allowed me to establish a private foundation along with my wife Debbie and to begin to engage in philanthropy. Our foundation supports educational, cultural and artistic causes in the United States and around the world. I firmly believe what President Kennedy said: to whom much is given, much is expected.
That is why I am focusing today on sharing and giving back. In many ways that process of sharing and giving back is as – and even more rewarding – than any of the money that I earned throughout my business career.
That’s my journey and my story in a nutshell. My journey was not a straight line. It was not always easy. There were twists and turns. There were dark and desperate days. There were many sleepless nights. And, the final destination was not certain.
We didn’t have enough money in the bank to buy the QSS Group so my wife Debbie and I had to re-finance our home to get the $45,000 for the purchase.
What enabled me to prevail on my journey was a belief in myself and those around me and the opportunity presented by the American dream. Success taught me to move forward. As importantly, failure taught me to never go backward. From the time I started my business, I knew implicitly that you needed to move ahead and that if you did not you would be left behind.
My story can only happen in America. I am beneficiary of America’s kindness and generosity. It is America’s inclusiveness and openness that provided me ladder of opportunities to succeed. These are the strengths and values of America that all of us can proudly and truly embrace.
Entrepreneurial Learnings and Advice
Let me shift from my journey to what I learned as an entrepreneur and the advice that I would give because of those learnings.
If you noticed the invitation to this event this evening, it said I would be speaking on entrepreneurship. It might seem that this is a strange topic to talk to a group of students such as yourselves about. But, I do not believe that to be true because there are entrepreneurs in all fields.
The word entrepreneur is usually used to describe a business person. I am here today to say that that definition is far too limiting. There are entrepreneurs in all lines of work.
There are entrepreneurs in education. There are entrepreneurs in health care. There are entrepreneurs in government. There are entrepreneurs in academia. There are entrepreneurs in social work. I could go on – but I am certain that you get the picture.
So, this is my first piece of advice. No matter your chosen profession, be an entrepreneur.
An entrepreneur is someone who sees things not as they are but as they might be. An entrepreneur is willing to invest in himself and others to move things forward. An entrepreneur is not afraid of risk but does not take risks unnecessarily. An entrepreneur innovates and changes things to make them better. That is what I was and who I was as an entrepreneur.
I learned so much as an entrepreneur. I viewed every day as a learning experience. But, there was one overriding theme or lesson that I learned early on that was central to my success. That is, you need to think small to win big.
The famous American movie director and writer Woody Allen said, “90% of life is just showing up.” I became successful, and I believe you can as well, by concentrating on the 10%. That means focusing and paying careful attention to the critical few areas that make a difference for success.
For me in my business they were:
- Developing a distinctive core competence
- Establishing a laser beam customer focus
- Creating niche differentiation
- Ensuring perfection in performance
The core competence in my IT business was combining a blend of engineering, science and information technology skills in our service package.
Our laser beam customer focus was on the organizations that needed that blend of high technical skills in their IT work.
Our niche differentiation was to concentrate on those organizations and not to try to grow willy-nilly.
We ensured perfection in performance by providing all deliverables on time, under budget and managing the customer relationship in a manner that exceeded their expectations.
Those were my key learnings as an entrepreneur. Even though I learned them in business, I believe those four areas: core competence, customer focus, niche differentiation and perfection in performance apply to all professions and lines of work. I encourage you to think about how you can employ them as guidelines as you go through your studies and move ahead into your careers.
Now, here is a little more advice based upon my learnings. If you will recall, a little earlier, I said “An entrepreneur innovates and changes things to make them better.”
So, my second piece of advice is to innovate. Let me qualify that though: Innovate – but don’t start from scratch. Borrow and build on the ideas of others.
A report on innovation states, “Not all innovation is radical or breakthrough…Innovation can also be incremental, yet small materially significant changes to the current operating model or products or services.”
Innovation in all fields is based upon being able to discover or see the things that others don’t and making the connections that others haven’t. Think about your profession what is not seen or known yet and what contribution can you make in this regard. I can assure you that, if you do, it will pay off big time.
The Future of International Education
Those are my thoughts and advice on entrepreneurship. Let me turn my attention briefly to the future of international education. When I look at those of you in this room -students I understand from nearly three dozen countries, I see that future.
That future is being together not only in the classroom but outside of it. The future of international education must not only be academic and cognitive. It must also be social, behavioral and emotional. It must be experiential.
All of you students staying here in the International Students House have been given a gift in this regard. It is a gift that will keep on giving. The bonds that you are forging in this House today, your time together, is as important – perhaps more-so in some ways – as your time in the classroom or hitting the books.
I can say that knowledgeably based upon reflecting back on my days as an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The times that I shared there with other immigrant students having coffee, sitting around chatting, discussing and debating topics late into the evening helped shape and make me who I am. I stay in touch with several of those students till this day.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of international education and having students from across and around the globe together in one place during these strife-torn times. Leaders of numerous countries are becoming much more autocratic. Many citizens in those countries are bent on building boundaries, barriers and walls to keep us apart rather than to bring us together.
Freedom House titled its Annual Report this year on the status of democracy in nations around the world, Democracy in Crisis. Historian Robert Kagan’s new book focusing on America’s withdrawal from international leadership and example-setting is titled, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.
These are indeed trying and turbulent times. That is why as I close my remarks I have one final piece of advice for you students and then a request.
Advice and Request
First, the advice.
I say to each one of you – Make it your journey.
Frank Islam’s journey was Frank Islam’s journey. Just as Bill Gates was Bill Gates and Steve Jobs was Steve Jobs.
On your journey, “Stay True to You. This has always been one of my personal mantras.
Make it your journey. Stay true to you. Be the best you can be. Exploit your full potentials. Don’t be a clone. Find your inner entrepreneur. Chart your own path. Create a mission, vision and set of values that are unique to your enterprise and area of endeavor.
That said, now the request. As part of your journey, identify something that you can do in the future with those in your field of expertise, in your homeland, or with your fellow housemates from the International Student House to make the world a more unified and connected place.
I am certain you have followed the emergence of the metoo movement to confront and combat sexual harassment and sexual assault in the United States and around the world. We need a wetoo movement – that is a wetogether movement to confront and combat the disintegration and destruction of democracy and freedom world-wide.
As I stated in my opening comments:
What the world needs now
Is love sweet love
That’s the only thing
There is just too little of…
You students can change that. You are the future.
Because of the education you are receiving and the relationships that you are forming here, you will have the power as a citizen of your mother country and as a global citizen, to help make the world a kinder, fairer, just, tolerant, inclusive and better place. If you and millions of others do so, we can help shape a better future for the world.
The world needs this. It needs you and the love that you can bring to it as part of your journey.
Thank you for letting me share this time and a few thoughts with you tonight. May God bless and keep you in the palm of his hand as you make your journey.