Distinguished guests, Friends, and Ladies and Gentlemen:
I want to express my deep appreciation for your warm welcome. My special thanks to the AABC Organizing Committee leadership for inviting me to deliver a keynote address on the subject of “Build your business. Renew America”. I am humbled and deeply honored. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Bezweda, Secretary Chow, Ed Yip, and Rana Shaikh, and the joint Asian American and South Asian Commissions.
Thank you for your kind introduction. It is a special pleasure to be here today with you Asian American entrepreneurs and business people. That’s because we are linked by our shared backgrounds and shared history and shared heritages. I know where you’ve been and I know where you are going. I hope that some of what I share with you will help you get there more effectively and efficiently and in a manner that will enable you to contribute to renewing America and the American dream.
I have three main messages to share: First, make it your journey. Second, think small to win big. Third, do well but also do good.
Make it your journey. Let me begin by telling you a little bit about my journey and then talk about yours.
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. For those of you in the audience who have followed similar paths, I know you recognize this is a daunting challenge. 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 six stages:
- Getting a good education
- Willingness to take risk
- Becoming an entrepreneur
- Building a strong and talented team
- To deliver what customer wants. You should never forget that without customer, you will not have business
- Being focused and committed and being passionate and being personally engaged and being involve in the business
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 real world grounding that I needed to start my own business.
After doing my apprenticeship, in 1994, I purchased the QSS Group 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 2,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue. Starting a business is about taking risks and it is about confronting uncertainty. It is about getting out of comfort zone and venturing into new horizon and experiencing new environment.
So when you ask me how I became successful, it was not me, but we who made it happen .My team of talented senior managers was central to everything. Success in business is a team sport. I’ll come back to that team concept again later in my speech.
In 2007, I sold my company to Perot Systems. That sale allowed me to establish a private foundation that supports educational, cultural and artistic causes in the United States and around the world. I firmly believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. I am always reminded and guided by this phrase.
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. I will come back to this topic also near the end of my speech.
That’s my journey in a nutshell. But, as all of you in the audience who are on your own journeys understand and appreciate, my journey was not a straight line. It was not always easy. And, the final destination was not certain.
During the early years, there were several issues to be dealt with that I’m assuming most of you have confronted: will we win the contract, will I get the bank loan, will I be able to make payroll. There were some 24 hour days and many sleepless nights. I’m assuming that most of you have been there and done that as well.
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.
Enough about my journey. I hope that it is instructive. But, as I said at the outset of my speech, 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. So, my advice for you in your business is “Stay True To You.”
I saw that saying recently on a note pad by the phone in a hotel room where I was staying. It resonated with me because that has always been one of my personal mantras.
Steve Jobs said something similar. In a commencement address at Stanford, he advised the graduates, “Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” As business owners, you are post-graduates, so let me modify Jobs’ advice, “Your time is limited so don’t waste it trying to emulate someone else’s business.”
Don’t be a “me too business”. 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.
In other words, make it your journey. While each of your journeys should and must be different, I think that there is a common approach that you can employ as a general guideline for achieving success. That is – think small to win big.
Woody Allen said, “90% of life is just showing up.” I became successful, and I believe you can as business owners as well, by concentrating on the 10%. That means focusing and paying careful attention to the critical few areas that make a difference for business 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
Let me address each of these areas in turn.
First, core competence: when I started my business, IT firms in DC were a dime a dozen. Nothing set them apart. I decided that my firm could stand alone through an integrated blend of engineering, science and information technology skills. The IT skills were the basic requirements, the science and engineering skills separated us from the pack.
Second, laser beam customer focus. I am sure most of you have been following Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, purchase of The Washington Post. Bezos recently promised to bring his obsessive commitment to the customer to turning around the Post. I am certain that will pay off big time as did our obsessive commitment to the customer at my company QSS Group.
We got our first assignment from NASA because of my scientific background and executive experience at Raytheon. We treated NASA extremely well, exceeded their expectations, and as a result got significant add-on business. From 1994 to 1997, NASA was our only client. We used our track record there as the basis to expand our business.
That brings me to the third area, niche differentiation. We didn’t expand willy-nilly. We expanded outward from our core client business to those with similar characteristics and needs. QSS’ first work outside NASA was with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the FDIC. After that we added the Department of Defense and other agencies.
We were able to expand and grow quickly because of our perfection in performance. Past performance is critical in getting governmental contracts. I knew that many IT firms were late on deliverables and sometimes did poor project management and shoddy technical work.
I vowed that my firm would stand apart from other firms in this competitive arena and established “Performance as Promised” as QSS’ corporate motto. It was more than a motto. It was the way we did business and a springboard for getting additional business.
Those are the four areas in which I thought small to win big at QSS. While your strategies and tactics will differ given the nature of your business, I think the core management principles of core competence, customer focus, niche differentiation and perfection in performanceare cross cutting and can be used to be successful in any line of business.
I would add to these four areas one that I mentioned earlier. That is building the right top management team through recruitment, selection and sharing the wealth as part of the formula for business success. Your core group – the 4 to 6 individuals closest to you- can make the difference between a business being one that is moderately successful with slow growth and marginal profitability to one that is highly successful with fast growth and good profitability.
If you’ve got the right folks in place, you can trust those key decision makers who you’ve recruited to run the business. You don’t need to be control freak involved in every aspect of the business. Concentrate your attention where you can add value and make a difference. For me that was in in marketing and sales and financial management.
I don’t know what those areas will be for each of you. My advice regardless of what they are though is to: Hire the very best. Hold them accountable. Get out of their way. And, let them do their jobs. Let me share another advice- Always look ahead, not dwell on the past and not be complacent.
That brings me to the final topic for my talk today: Do well but also do good. If you’ve been reading the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times or any of the business journals, these days, you’ve probably seen reference to the need to create an economic virtuous cycle – a condition in which positive results engender more positive results and help to grow the economy. Today, the economy should be moving toward a virtuous cycle because many large corporations have been and are reaping record profits.
Instead we are stuck in a variable cycle. That’s because those corporations are doing nothing to little to nothing to create new jobs or to raise wages or reward line level employees appropriately for their increased productivity and contributions to stellar business performance. As a result, these positive results are not reinforcing and extending themselves.
To my mind, the reason for this is simple and straightforward. The virtuous cycle may be fine as an abstract economic principle or concept. But, for the virtuous cycle to come into play in the real world you need “virtuous organizations.”
What is a virtuous organization? Here’s my definition. The virtuous organization is one that has a strong moral compass and a compelling mission that creates value for customers, employees and the community. Let me repeat that definition: The virtuous organization has a strong moral compass and a compelling mission that creates value for customers, employees and the community. The virtuous organization does well but also does good.
In my opinion, you as small business owners, from a minority background, have a special challenge and opportunity to be leaders in helping to jump start the virtuous cycle here in America by the way in which you build and manage your companies to make them virtuous organizations.
To build the virtuous organization, you will have to play three roles:
- Capital creator; and
- Value generator
As a navigator, you must chart the course and shape the way your business sails the seas. You must make sure your company does the right things and does them right.
You must build both your company’s core competence and its core consciousness. Core consciousness brings the organization’s beliefs such as integrity, quality and excellence front and center in the organization’s psyche and mode of operations.
When I said capital creator, probably the first thing that came to your mind was “financial capital”. Financial capital, however, is a dependent variable. It requires the right business model and other forms of capital creation in order to yield the appropriate return on investment.
Let me highlight two of those other forms of capital creation where you as the leader of a virtuous organization should concentrate. They are intellectual capital development and spiritual capital development.
In terms of intellectual capital, every organization has what I call its organizational IQ. That is the combination of all of the IQ’s of the employees in the company. Your challenge is to ensure that the organization is structured and operated to allow the employees to use all of their individual brain power in order to achieve its minimum IQ. Your opportunity is to create collaboration and teamwork that results in synergy thus creating intellectual capital that exceeds the total of all of the individuals in the business.
Spiritual capital is the invisible force that moves organizations and individuals. Your challenge and opportunity here is to create the positive motivational force field that causes all of the associates in your business to want to bring their “A” game into play day in and day out in order to achieve the company’s business and mission.
Finally, there is your role as value generator. Michael Porter of Harvard developed a business management concept called the value chain. The chain is comprised of primary activities such as inbound logistics, operations and outbound logistics and support activities such as human resource management and technology. Porter said that each element in the chain should add value and when they all did it gives the business a competitive advantage.
An “added value” chain is definitely essential for business success. In the virtuous organization, there is a matching concept and that is “value circles”. These are concentric circles that emanate outward from the business owner, through the top management team, to employees, to customers and ultimately to the community.
It all begins with you the owner. Your vision and values shape and define the company’s culture. If those values include concern, caring, compassion and commitment to making a positive difference in society – those values are reflected in everything that the business does – from the manner in which it operates, treats employees and customers, to its community involvement and philanthropic initiatives. Think of it this way, you as the leader are the person who drops the rock in the pond and as the circles ripple out they reflect your own image and likeness.
We are living in trying and troubling times. We are at a critical pivot point for America.
Our citizens have lost trust in most of our institutions. Research shows, however, they still respect and trust small businesses and entrepreneurs. That’s why as I look at those of you in this audience today not only do I see our future business leaders I also see the best hope for renewing America and the belief in the American dream.
I believe that the respect and trust that the citizens confide in small business people – especially in those such as you from a minority and/or socially or economically disadvantaged background – is well-deserved. That’s because you’ve done it the old fashioned way. You’ve earned it.
In my opinion, if you continue to stay the course by: making it your journey; thinking small to win big: and, doing well and also good – you will continue to earn it. I hope that the thoughts that I have shared with you today have made a modest contribution to increasing your earning power and that in return you will use that power to renew America. We have to recognize that American Dream is a continuous journey. That journey began, and is sustained by the contribution of individual citizen like you.
Remember as long as you believe in yourselves, the future will always be yours. President Obama once remarked “It is a future that is ours to decide, ours to define, and ours to win”.
I wish all of you continued success in the future. I am sure you will rise to the challenge. All of us will do well to remember that no matter how steep the path, or how discouraging the pace, never give up on your goals. One of my favorite quote in this regard comes from Winston Churchill, who said in 1941 near the beginning of World War II, “Never give in. Never, never-never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense”.
Once again, thank you for this opportunity. It has been a privilege to be here.
God bless you.