Frank Islam came to the United States from India at the age of 15 in pursuit of a dream.
Years later, in 1994, Islam bought a small IT services company, QSS Group, with a $45,000 bank loan that he mortgaged his house to secure.
Over the next 13 years, he and his team grew the company from one employee to 3,000, and increased its annual revenue from $45,000 to $300 million, Islam said.
In 2007, he sold QSS Group to Perot Systems Corp. for $250 million.
“I crossed the Atlantic Ocean to achieve the American dream,” Islam said. “And we do embody the American dream.”
Islam has since dedicated himself to philanthropy, backing a variety of civic, educational and artistic causes. He serves on number boards and advisory councils, including the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees, the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center.
On Wednesday, Islam spoke at the University of Missouri in Columbia at an event hosted by the Alfred Friendly Press Partners. Islam and his wife, Debbie Driesman, shared their views on subjects including entrepreneurship, education and the role of journalism in democracy. Prominent themes that emerged throughout the discussion included risk, diversity and generosity.
Taking risks, finding funding
Islam said there were some “dark and desperate days” when he first took over QSS Group.
“It was a really tough challenge,” he said.
But Islam was willing to take the risk of mortgaging his home for the business because running QSS Group aligned so clearly with his goals.
“I always wanted to be a business owner. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. And I always wanted to make a difference,” Islam said. “Those have been my guiding principles.
“What energized me, excited me to venture into this new horizon, is that I could … make a difference, become financially independent, and also help others to succeed.”
Islam said it’s still difficult for would-be entrepreneurs to find the funding needed to get their ideas off the ground.
“I’d encourage the people who have been successful … to help the small businesses and entrepreneur by giving them some seed money,” he said.
Islam and Driesman applauded Steve Case, the AOL co-founder and venture capitalist, who is working to spur investment in early-stage companies outside of traditional startup hotbeds.
“There are good ideas everywhere,” Driesman said. “And in a lot of cases it makes more sense for an investor to focus on a company that’s in the heartland, because it’s a whole lot less expensive.”
As an immigrant who achieved entrepreneurial success, Islam sees himself as an embodiment of the American dream.
“Our story can only happen in America,” Islam said, adding that America’s inclusiveness and openness were essential to his success.
Islam stressed the importance of inclusiveness and tolerance to the country’s present and future. He and Driesman also discussed the value of diversity in the business world.
“There is monopoly and wisdom. Wisdom belongs to all who willing to work hard, aim high and pursue their dreams,” he said. “Diversity is not just the color, the creed, the race, the background or belief. Diversity is also getting people of different ideas and different minds.”
Driesman cited research showing the business benefits of diverse management teams, but she said more needs to be done to raise awareness of those benefits.
“If you have a diverse executive suite, the company is far more likely to be successful,” Driesman said, “because you are bringing in different viewpoints, and that means you can cater to a broader base.”
Sharing the credit and the spoils
Islam deflected personal credit for the rapid rise of QSS Group under his leadership.
“It was not me, but we, who made it happen,” he said. “The team of talented managers are central to everything.”
The key to building a thriving business, he said, is to surround yourself with talented people, “give them oxygen to breathe, (and) they will do the wonders for you.”
Since selling the company, Islam has channeled his focus and fortune into a variety of philanthropic causes.
“Giving back and sharing is much more rewarding than making any money in my entire life’s career,” Islam said. “Do well, and do good.”