Entrepreneur Frank Islam wears many hats – he heads the FI Investment Group, is the general trustee of the board of trustees of John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and is a philanthropist and civic leader as well. He serves on the boards and advisory councils of the US Institute of Peace, the Woodrow Wilson Center and Brookings Institution and various universities including Johns Hopkins University, American University and George Mason University. In this candid interview with The Times of India, he recounts the roller-coaster ride of his life so far and his entrepreneurial experiences.
Tell us the circumstances under which you came to the US? What was your original name how did you get the name Frank?
I left India at the age of fifteen to come to the United States to go to college and to pursue the American dream. It was hard leaving my parents and family at that time because we were a close knit group and I loved much about India and my home town of Azamgarh. But even at that young age I felt that it was essential to do so in order to acquire the knowledge, skills and opportunities to succeed in business and become an entrepreneur.
My original name was Shah F Islam. I got the name Frank by one of my Professor at the University of Colorado. He thought it sounded good and it is easier to pronounce.
Walk us through your academic career in US and how you supported yourself?
I received my BS and MS in computer sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder. I supported myself by working at McDonald and at Shakey Pizza located in Boulder Colorado. I also financially supported by working at the University of Colorado library. That was the financial end of things.
My emotional support came from a small group of friends and associates who I hung out with in my spare time. I also received educational support from a couple of Professors Professor Wolfgang Thron and Professor Bill Jones who must have seen something in me and encouraged me to do by best in school and to set my career goals high.
I must admit that the University was kind of a lonely place for me in my initial time there being a minority from a foreign country on a campus that back in the 70’s had predominantly American students. As I understand it, things have changed significantly now, and many of the students on major university campuses come from countries around the world.
Who gave you a start in business and entrepreneurship? Is it fair to say you are entirely self-made or did you get support?
There is no such thing as a self made person. Any person who tells you that they made it on their own is not being honest with him or herself.
There is an old saying that leaders are born not made. That’s not true for leaders or for entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs are made and not born. As far as I know, there is no such thing as an entrepreneurial gene that is passed down the family tree.
In my case, I got the education that I needed to become an entrepreneur at university. I developed my business and entrepreneurial skills by working with two major information technology groups before I purchased the QSS Group in 1994 for $45K and built it in 13 years from a company with 1 employee – me – to a company of more than 2,000 with revenues of approximately $300M.
I had the good fortune during my employment tenure with one of those information technology firms to have an exceptional mentor at one of those firms named Sharad Tak.
Sharad was my mentor in business. I can’t say enough about his tutelage. He taught me the ins and outs of managing information technology contracts with the government and inspired my entrepreneurship.
In December of 2014, Sharad and I both received legend awards from the DC chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE). It was a special honor to be recognized with him and showed that I had learned my lessons well and through the dint of hard work and determination proven myself as an entrepreneur.
In January of 2015 I received Martin Luther King Jr. International Service Award. This award is especially important because, as I said in my acceptance remarks, there is an “indelible connection” between Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.
I am also equally grateful to receive this award as a Muslim American, at a time the Muslim faith is hijacked by those who practice radical Islam, which is not a religion but a cult of those who are alienated from society and carry violence and hatred in their hearts for those who are different from them. This is a sad perversion of the Muslim faith. My being given this award as a Muslim acknowledges the fact that the overwhelming and huge majority of Muslims are advocates of brotherhood and unity in a conflicted world.
How did you become a Democratic Party supporter and why?
Growing up in India with its strong emphasis on representative democracy, I understood the importance of being a good citizen early in my life. After I came here, my first involvement with politics was the simple act of voting in elections – I recognized that not only is citizenship a right it is also a responsibility.
As I became more knowledgeable, I gravitated toward the Democratic Party because it reflects my values – a concern and agenda for everyone rather than the privileged few. I must state that even though I am generally a supporter of the Democratic Party, I am also a strong believer in bipartisanship and have supported those from the other side of the aisle as well.
I reflect this concern for the common good, collaborative problem solving and civic involvement in the two books that I have written, renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage and Working the Pivot Points to Make America Work Again. I also advocate for this positive and partnership type approach in the blogs that I write regularly for the Huffington Post.
Walk us through your association with President Obama and Hillary Clinton. How you met them, your political contributions etc. Why are they better than other Democratic leaders, or for that matter, other Republican Leaders?
I have supported and continue to support President Obama because I agree with his agenda for the United States. I am and will support Hillary Clinton because I think her platform will be a progressive one that will be the best for renewing the American dream, eliminating the opportunity inequality that exists today, and making the country a better place.
I should point out that I support other candidates at the federal, state, and local level as well. My first concern is not what Party they belong do but what they stand for.
Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas. I firmly believe that when political leaders work and reason together the citizens and the country wins. When they don’t democracy suffers.
At what point do you think one is ready for philanthropy? Does one have to be wealthy for philanthropic activities? Were you a donor when you were making $ 100,000? What did you give to and how much?
Philanthropy is not the province of anyone nor is it purely financial. Youth give money and engage in philanthropic acts as do numerous citizens of limited means.
The fact that I am wealthy means that I can give more than many others. It does not mean, however, that my contributions mean more. All support to groups and organizations that deserve it counts – no matter the amount.
My initial gifts to local charitable and educational organizations when I had much less money than I have today were important for me and for those groups I supported. I have always lived by the principle espoused by John Kennedy, “To whom much is given much is expected.”
I am blessed to be able to give more today than when my business was in start-up mode or in its early years. How much one gives does not matter – giving back and paying it forward is what matters. It is a reward in itself.
At what point did you feel you owed something to AMU and why, what was the trigger? Why AMU? Have you donated to your college here in the US?
AMU is my alma mater. I do not support it just because I attended school there though but because it shaped me in my formative years and helped me to become the person I am today. AMU has shaped my journey and my destiny.
Its principles have always guided me during the time of calm or crisis. AMU has shaped my fate and future. AMU helped shape the lives of many generations.
Some of the values that I got from AMU are: a love of education; eternal optimism about one’s hopes and dreams; being collegial and candid towards all; keeping steadfast to a standard of excellence; and living in peace and harmony by being tolerant and respecting the dignity of each person.
I would not be the person I am if it were not for AMU education. My giving back to AMU is a way of beginning to repay the university for what it helped me to become.
My wife and I are currently giving $2M to AMU to build Frank and Debbie Islam School of Management at AMU. The building will be dedicated in October of this year. We are extremely pleased to invest in the School of Management because of the emphasis it will place on entrepreneurship and preparing the students at AMU to become entrepreneurial leaders and engage in economic development activities that will create jobs and opportunities for thousands of people throughout India.
I believe my donation will expand the AMU family tree by contribution to support the education of the next generations of Indians. AMU students have always been our best hope. My investment is my way of saying thank you and d keeping hope alive.
We not only support AMU we also give to other educational institution as well. Supporting educational institutions is one of our highest priorities because education is the bridge to opportunity – especially for those from difficult circumstances.
We have made major gifts and supported scholarships at my alma mater in the United States, the University of Colorado at Boulder and at my wife’s alma mater in Canada, Western University. Other educational institutions we have supported, to name just a few, include: Montgomery County Community College, George Mason University, Marymount University, Johns Hopkins University, and American University.
You have been critical of the current political dispensation in India. What would you like addressed?
I was disappointed by the political and economic inactivity and malaise in India over the past few years before Modi’s election. I think there are great opportunities now and time will tell whether they are brought to fruition.
I am specifically interested in actions to address the enormous economic and educational needs of Muslims and other minority groups throughout India.
I also think there is tremendous potential in the emerging American-India partnership. I was privileged to participate in a roundtable of US and Indian CEO’s convened by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi during President Obama’s Republic Day visit to India.
The CEO roundtable produced numerous solid recommendations in five broad areas to strengthen the “Strategic Partnership” between India and the United States: Integrating into Global Supply Chains – Partnering in Manufacturing; Technology Innovation and Education; Healthcare and Life Sciences; Agriculture, Cold Chain and Food Security; and, Bilateral Ease of Doing Business. These recommendations will be pursued through an ongoing Strategic and Commercial Dialogue.
If that dialogue evolves as expected, it will result in a state of interdependence between these two great nations and democracies and position to be even greater super powers than they are today in the 21st century.
Do you think wealthy Muslims should take responsibility to improve the social and economic metrics of those who are less fortunate in their community?
I think all people of wealth and those who have the means – Muslim and otherwise – have a responsibility to assist those who are less fortunate in their communities.
The nature of that assistance can take many forms. The important thing, in my opinion, is involvement. Being a spectator or idly standing by and watching human suffering should not be an option – nor should it be acceptable to blame others for their plight.
Ecumenical religious, spiritual and ethical values should compel us to reach out to others and provide them with a helping hand and a hand-up rather than a hand-out. There are economic reasons to intervene also. When more people are successful in a community it thrives and grows, when less people are successful it begins atrophies and dies.
Are you happy with the status of Muslims in America? Have you felt discriminated and do you ever feel the Islamophobia that some say exists in the US?
Yes and no. I believe that in general Muslims as a group have done relatively well economically but not necessarily as well in terms of social acceptance and political clout or participation. The tragedy of 9/11 and subsequent events have probably slowed down the social and political progress a little and definitely have contaminated the mind set of part of the American public.
I must emphasize that that is not true for the whole of America. The status and attitudes toward Muslims – as it is for other minorities – in the United States is a patchwork quilt.
In terms of discrimination, let me answer that with a question. In what country other than the United States, could a person of my background and belief have achieved the success and status that I have?
I firmly believe my story can only happen in America. It is America that has provided me ladders of opportunity to succeed. My story shows the inclusiveness and openness and qualities of America. These are the values and strengths of America that all of us can proudly and truly embrace.
Are there people who discriminate and who are Islamaphobes? Absolutely. Are there people who do not and are not? Absolutely.
That’s America – and there is the need as the founders so eloquently put it to continue to work on creating “a more perfect union.