He was a 15-year-old when he came to the United States with just $15 in his pocket.
Now Frank Islam is a business tycoon, a sought-after entrepreneur, philanthropist, writer, education and peace activist who interacts with top American political leaders, innovators and intellectuals. He is a great believer in the power of education and arts. He also holds philanthropic causes dearly. Let’s see how Frank Islam does this all.
Question: So tell us your story. What happened in the last three decades that has propelled Frank Islam to prominence?
Frank Islam: Let me begin by borrowing a line from Woody Allen who said, “90 percent of life is just showing up.” I became successful by concentrating on the other 10 percent. That 10 percent revolved around getting a good education, doing my apprenticeship, becoming an entrepreneur who was willing to take risks, building a strong team that shared my values and vision, and broadening my horizon.
Q: Share with us your journey; how it all began in the initial days, how you arrived in the United States and what dreams you had?
FI: I came to the United States from India at the age of 15. I got my masters and bachelors in computer science at the University of Colorado. That gave me the knowledge I needed to go into business.
I always wanted to start my own business but I knew that I needed experience first. So, I worked with two major information technology firms in the Washington DC area for 10 years. That gave me the skills and real world grounding that I needed to be a business owner.
Then, in 1994, I purchased the QSS Group for $45,000. Within 13 years, along with my management team, we took that firm from a workforce of one employee to more than 2,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue.
Q: So, you credit your team as well?
FI: A team of talented managers was central to everything. Success in business is a team sport. So, when people ask me how I became successful, I tell them it was not just I but we who made it happen.
Finally, I sold my company to Perot Systems in 2007. That sale allowed me to establish a private foundation that supports educational, cultural and artistic causes in the United States and around the world and to write on topics that are important to the future of this country and the world. I am focusing today on sharing and giving back. In many ways that process of sharing and giving back is more rewarding than the money that I have earned throughout my business career.
Q: Life at the top of any field is really busy, how do you keep in touch with people and the place back in town of your origin. Tell us how you are also contributing generously to the Aligarh University?
FI: We are uniquely blessed. We embody the American Dream. With that thought and spirit in mind, my wife Debbie and I have committed $2m to support the building of the Frank and Debbie Islam School of Management at AMU.
“Then, in 1994, I purchased the QSS Group for $45,000. Within 13 years, along with my management team, we took that firm from a workforce of one employee to more than 2,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue”
Aligarh shaped me. Aligarh remains an inseparable part of my life, my story and my journey. Its principles have always guided me during times of calm or crisis. It is a true treasure. It is timeless. It is like a precious possession. I am sure many people in Pakistan also believe that Aligarh has been a beacon of hope and aspiration for countless Muslims. Aligarh shaped the subcontinent. It gave leaders during the freedom movement, which led to the independence of India and creation of Pakistan. I am sure every Pakistani cherishes how Sir Syed Ahmed Khan drew Muslims to new and enlightened education.
I know Pakistan can make great strides with the right kind of priorities. Look at what India has done in the field of information technology.
So I take real pride in investing in the School of Management. I am confident it will contribute to grooming entrepreneurs and preparing the students at AMU to become business leaders and engage in economic development activities that will create jobs and opportunities for thousands of people throughout India.
So Debbie and I see our contribution as an investment in the future of India and its citizens
Q: Here in the US, too, I think you gave $1 million to the US Institute of Peace?
FI: We have contributed close to $1m to USIP. I firmly believe in the US Institute of Peace’s mission as an organisation devoted to prevention of conflicts around the globe. The USIP is very much engaged in striving to curb violent extremism. In addition, it is engaged in helping nations make the transition to peaceful and stable democracies.
Another reason I am involved with USIP is my faith. I treasure my faith. Dignity, peace and justice are in our faith. Being a Muslim has taught me many things – but the most important is that the whole purpose of religion is to provide justice and a path to justice for all of us.
I have learned as a Muslim to believe in the unity of all creation and that everything and everyone is a reflection of God on earth. Because of that I have also learned that there are just people and that just people do just things.
Q: What do you think of Pakistan and Pakistanis?
FI: Oh, I meet a lot of Pakistani-Americans. They are very intelligent, successful people. I have many friends of Pakistani origin, who are artists, writers, doctors and business leaders. I recently hosted Pakistani and Indian artists for a South Asian film festival.
Q: And what about Pakistan?
FI: I have not been to Pakistan yet. But I have learnt from friends and through the media that Pakistan has made some important progress in establishing some very good institutions. But still, I believe if Pakistan pays more attention to the growth of the IT sector and attracts business investors, and collaborates with India, it can achieve higher growth.
I know some of the challenges Pakistan faces on the Afghan border. And I am also aware of India-Pakistan tensions. I am a strong advocate of peaceful relations, dialogue and cultural exchange. I mean artists and cultural figures from both countries and business leaders can help greatly.
I see many Pakistanis achieve and live the American Dream here in the United States, and am absolutely sure if given an opportunity, they can work wonders in their own country also.
Overall, for the entire region, I believe that education is the key to success. It will open up new avenues for progress in South Asia. It will kick-start economic development, reduce poverty, improve the quality of life, and it will also help foster peace in the region.
Education must be the pivot, the focal point, because it is a great equaliser and opportunity creator. It is especially important for those who are economically and socially disadvantaged.
I respect Pakistani artists. Art is also a pivot point because it educates others and advances social causes. Art and culture transcend all boundaries. Art has unifying and healing power.
“I have been fortunate in my business career and with the help of my business teammates have achieved financial success. I accomplished this with the assistance of many others — family, business associates and friends”
Look at America — education, sciences and arts have done much to build this country. Of course, technology has helped to it get a great edge over others. That is why creative achievements of Americans have had such appeal around the world.
Q: Would you like to visit Pakistan?
FI: Yes. I believe my message of peace and economic development through education, entrepreneurship and the arts is embraced by many there and I would love to have the chance to exchange ideas with those who are kindred spirits.
Q: What do you think Pakistanis and Indian Muslims need to do to excel in business?
FI: I don’t want to sound like someone advising people. It is kind of contrary to upbringing. But I believe being a lifelong learner helps. Never give up, create your own legacy. Make the impossible possible.
When you are successful, provide ladders of opportunity for others to succeed. No matter what, stick to the core values of decency and dignity.
I have always believed that no country and no race and no religion has a monopoly over wisdom. Wisdom belongs to all. I always tell students that they should never be frightened of the future but that they should use their own knowledge, skills and abilities to build their own future.
Q: Would you like to tell us which award do you cherish the most?
FI: I have been privileged and blessed to receive many honours and awards. I truly appreciate all of them. Two awards that have special meaning for me because of my interests and heritage are: the Martin Luther King Jr Legacy Award for International Service and the Pride of India Award.
Q: Why do you engage in philanthropic activities, I mean what motivates you?
FI: I am a philanthropist because I want to help others and to help others help themselves.
Americans from all walks of life and income levels are extraordinarily generous in this regard. They dig deep to assist those in need both in the United States and around the world.
I give because I believe firmly in what John F Kennedy said. That is “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
This belief comes from my family background and my faith. I have been fortunate in my business career and with the help of my business teammates have achieved financial success. I accomplished this with the assistance of many others — family, business associates and friends. I do not really look at my contribution as philanthropy but rather as a repayment of a loan and an investment.
My parents taught me to treat people in the way you are being treated. Give dignity and respect to others. Do what you can do to serve your community. These were the core values established in me as a youth. They are my guiding principles today.