Frank Islam is an Indian-American millionaire from Azamgarh in India who is a well known philanthropist and guide for the Muslim Community in America and India, he talks to Daily World Resident Editor Ajit Chak about his life, his views and his achievements
How has the present election polarized Americans?
The polarization of Americans began far before this recent election. Over the past few years, the Pew Research Center has done a series of studies showing a dramatically increasing gap and significant differences of opinion on almost all important issues between Republicans and Democrats.
The long term impact is hard to forecast. What is easy to see at this point in time is that the United States is a nation divided. Right after the election, President-elect Trump called for national unity and promised to be the President for all Americans – even those who opposed him.
Will American Muslims be affected by Trump’s presidency?
It is difficult to contemplate, given President elect Trump’s language during the presidential campaign, that he will take any actions that will make things better for American Muslims. On the other hand, it is also difficult to imagine that he will take any specific actions that will be harmful to them either.
What most people don’t realize is that after 9/11 President Bush’s Justice Department put together a National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). NSEERS targeted 25 countries on its “special registration” list – 24 of them were Muslim, the other was North Korea .
Over a decade, more than 80,000 men, Muslim and non-Muslim were put on this list. President Obama suspended the NSEERS operations but did not eliminate it.
In November of 2015, Trump was asked if he would require all American Muslims to register and he said, “Absolutely.” He never said that again and his campaign later “clarified” that he didn’t mean it.
Bottom line, it seems most likely that there will be no direct effect on American Muslims from a Trump presidency.
What did you do to be successful in America?
Let me begin to answer that question by borrowing a line from Woody Allen who said, “90% of life is just showing up.” I became successful by concentrating on the other 10%. That 10% revolved around getting a good education, doing my apprenticeship, becoming an entrepreneur who was willing to take risk, building a strong team that shared my values and vision, and broadening my horizon.
I came to the United States from India at the age of 15. I crossed the Atlantic Ocean to achieve the American Dream. 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 1 employee to more than 2,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue.
At the QSS Group, my team of talented managers was central to everything. Success in business is a team sport. 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.
My story can only happen in America. It is America’s inclusiveness and openness that provided me with ladders of opportunity to succeed.
Why are you investing in education in India and the US?
In a phrase, I would say that education provides “the keys to the kingdom.” Education is the powerful equalizer and opportunity creator.
I invest in education in India and the U.S. because I started my education journey at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in India and I continued my education by getting two degrees at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I am glad you chose to characterize our giving to higher education as investments rather than charitable contributions because that is the way we look at it. The return on our investment is students who will graduate and give back to society.
While education is important in America, the needs are even greater in India and that is why I am supporting initiatives in India. My intent to use education as a tool to improve the socio-economic status of underprivileged in India. When you empower underprivileged with education and economic mobility, they can change the landscape of India.
What are your thoughts on freedom of faith in India?
The one thing I know is that the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of religion. That constitutional freedom should be unabridged. Unfortunately there are some people whose voices of intolerance, prejudice, hostility and bigotry are dividing India along the lines of faith. I firmly believe India has long succeeded because of democracy, diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance. I also believe all Indians should be united by a common hope for equal treatment and better tomorrow. It will do well to remember that attack on one faith is attack on all faiths. Today I am the victim. Tomorrow you will be the victim. I also believe attacking people along the lines of faith will tear apart the harmonious fabric of India.
Having said that, let me share my personal perspective on freedom of faith with you.
My faith as a Muslim has taught me to respect all Religions. 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.
I treasure my faith. My faith firmly believes in equality, dignity, compassion, respect, tolerance, justice and peace for other faiths.
Who is your role model and why?
I do not have a single role model. I have had different role models at different stages of my life. My first role models were my parents. They taught me to treat people in the way you are being treated. Give dignity and respect to others. They are my guiding principles today
Even though he was not educated, my father stressed the need for education and taught me that through dedication and hard work all things are possible.
When I came to the United States, to get my higher education, my role model was one of my college professor Wolfgang Thron. After I graduated, my role models were the two managers for whom I worked at the information technology firms where I developed my business acumen. I was not born a business person. I had to learn the ropes from them.
Finally, if there is a famous role model that I could cite, it would be John F. Kennedy. Kennedy who influenced my life significantly and my civic and philanthropic involvement since I sold my business in 2007.
Who and what inspired you to leave Azamgarh for the US at a young age?
I had read much about the United States of America and how it was the land of opportunity and place that provided a good chance to realize your dreams. My parents’ supported me in making that quest – even though it meant that I would be leaving home at a young age. They did so because they wanted me to be all that I could be and felt that I had the gumption and internal fortitude to persevere in pursuing them in a distant land that was far away.
How did you react initially to the new country?
My initial reaction was one of adjustment to a new culture and new surroundings that were different than what I had experienced in India . The good news for me was that Boulder where I got my undergraduate and graduate degrees was and is a beautiful mid-sized city that is centered around students – and I was just another student there. I was one of the few minorities and foreigners in school at the time I went there. But, that didn’t seem to matter much as most of the students were focused on getting there classroom work done. It did mean though that I was a little isolated and lonely at times. I formed a few strong friendships with other students and relationships with a couple of key teachers and that helped me cope with my new surroundings.
What inspired you to enter the world of IT?
When I got involved in information technology in 1976, the industry was not in its infancy but it was just starting to grow and mature. I was always quite good at math, logic and science and thought that I could my competence in those areas to excel in information technology in a way that would enable me to carve out a path for business success based upon that.
Why did you choose AMU for a sizeable donation?
My wife Debbie and I are uniquely blessed. We embody the American Dream. With that thought and spirit in mind, we have contributed $2M to support the building of Frank and Debbie School of Management at Aligarh Muslim University.
I have made this donation because Aligarh shaped my story and determined my destiny. We see our contribution not as a charity but as an investment that will yield exponential returns.
AMU is not just a part of my life. It is a bedrock for so many other people in India. It is a beacon of hope and aspiration and dream. Graduates from AMU have gone across India and around the world to make a difference as business, political and social leaders. It is my privilege and pleasure to invest in those AMU graduates of the future who will build upon the proud legacy of this fine institution.
I would not be the person I am if it were not for Aligarh education. Aligarh students have always been our best hope. My investment is my way of saying Thank you and keeping the hope alive.
Is the Indian government doing all it can for the Muslim minority?
I am not in a position to evaluate the work of the government in promoting the interests of the Muslim minorities in the nation. I do know that the needs of Muslims and other minorities in India – those in the weaker sections remain substantial and there are years, decades, even centuries of neglect to be addressed, compensated for and over come.
This cannot and will not be accomplished by any one administration. It will require a sustained commitment from administration to administration and collaboration with the other sectors of Indian society. This must be a job for all Indians of good will who are interested in making India a better place and the best democracy in the world.
What is the most pressing issue facing Muslims in India?
I must admit that I am biased because, as I said earlier, I see education as the great equalizer and opportunity creator. Here are some sad facts related to the educational circumstances of Muslims in India :
The 2001 Census Report showed that the literacy rate of Indian Muslims was 59.1%. The rate for Muslim males in urban areas was much higher than in rural areas. The rate for females was substantially lower in each area.
A study released by the U.S. India Policy Institute at the end of 2013 states that since 2006, and I quote, “…the literacy level and the quantum of improvements for Muslims were modest compared to other populations.”
That same study showed that only 11% of Muslims in India pursue higher education compared to a national average of approximately 19% and that participation in the “general category of Muslims in higher education” had actually declined by 1.5% for the period studied
These are devastating findings that frame the critical nature of the need for Muslims in terms of education.
In my opinion, if we can correct those negative conditions and change those statistics, we will provide the basis for Muslims to lift themselves up. If we give them that helping hand, they will not need handouts. They will become self-sufficient and be able to help others up as well. That should be the goal I also believe if they succeed. All of us will succeed. India will succeed
Finally do Muslims in India need preachers or do they need teachers?
They need people who can do both. Muslims need preachers who can teach and teachers who can preach. The emphasis may be different in each of those professions but they both can help develop the knowledge, skills and abilities individuals need in order to lead good lives and to contribute to making India a better place for all regardless of religion or race.