Banaras Hindu University Speech
Frank F Islam
Lessons From and for the Journey
Prof A Vashampan Director, Dean, Prof. Singh, Head of Departments, Students, Members of the Faculty, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I sincerely thank all of you for coming and for your hospitality and warm welcome. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my host Director of the Institute Prof A Vashampan, Prof. Rajesh Singh for giving me an opportunity to address you today. They provide the example, set the standard, and provide the broad shoulders upon which we can stand. Let us give them a big round of applause.
It is wonderful to be back home again. It is a special pleasure to be here with you students because like you I attended college here in India. So, I feel a common bond through shared history, shared heritage, and shared background. Let me take one step further, as I look around, I see me in you. I see the future of India. I see the future of world. You are the promise of India and the world.
I have always held BHU in high esteem. I admire the splendid beauty of this institution. This university is a true and timeless treasure. It is a precious possession. Its leaders have shaped our history.
I was not fortunate to attend BHU but instead went to Aligarh Muslim University. . I stand before you a student of Aligarh Muslim University addressing the faculty, staff and students of Banaras Hindu University.
What an honor. What a privilege. What a testimony to the extraordinary foresight of the founders of our two great universities – Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and Pandit Malaviya Ji.
We are here together as allies because these men were visionaries who saw the world not through religious blinders but through an expansive view of what strong and inclusive faiths can do to unite rather than divide us.
Pandit Malaviya Ji was not only one of the greatest leaders in the history of India but also of the world. He was a man ahead of his time. I saw the statue of Pandit Malaviya when I entered the campus. It is an enduring memorial of his achievement and his legacy. His statue is a constant reminder of his vision, his values, his love for education, and his passion and his commitment in creating the next generations of leaders.
Pandit Malaviya Ji instructed us, “India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual good will and harmony.”
Sir Syed expressed a similar philosophy stating that the graduates of AMU “…shall go forth through the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free inquiry, of large hearted toleration, and of pure morality.”
Even though these two institutions were founded because of different faiths, we are connected and share common ground because of the vision and commitment of our founders to inter-communal harmony and to developing leaders who would make India and the world a better place.
I was asked to talk with you today regarding my own journey and lessons that I have learned in the journey along the life’s highway. I am pleased to do so. I have titled my talk Lessons From and For the Journey. I want to direct my talk primarily to you students who are in the audience.
I hope that the story of my journey and my thoughts will be of some relevance for your journey. I share them not because I expect you to imitate my path or adapt my perspective but because I hope they will be useful as touchstones and frames of reference as you define what will matter for you and chart your own course for the future.
I will make my presentation in three parts and conclude with a request of you students. The three parts are:
- Lessons from India
- Lessons from America
- Lessons from Life
Let me begin with Part 1: Lessons from India:
Growing up in India had an enormous impact and influence on the person I am today. It’s here that I learned lessons from this country, my family, my home city of Varanasi, and Aligarh Muslim University.
All of those forces shaped and influenced me during my formative years. Let me tell you how.
My country: I love India. I love this country because I was born here and because of its art, history, music, culture and rituals. But most of all I love India because it stands as an international beacon of democracy, diversity and peacemaking.
My family: I grew up in a middle-class family. My parents taught me to: Treat people in the way that you want to be treated. Give dignity and respect to others. Work hard and aim high. Do what you can to serve your community. In the neighborhood where I grew up, all of us from different backgrounds and different faiths learned to work side-by-side because we were bound together in the service of others.
My home city: Even though I call Varanasi my home, I I was born and spent the first few years of my life in Azamgarh.
I treasure the city of Varanasi – my home town. Varanasi is an ancient city whose timelessness has inspired the great American Mark twain, who said: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. I have fond memory of this city. It is where my journey began. It shaped my story. No matter where I am, the memory of Varanasi lingers on my mind. It is a beautiful city and a tolerant one. It is here that I learned about the richness of different religions and respect for other religions.
My university: Last, but not least of course, is Aligarh Muslim University. My days at A.M.U. have had a profound effect on me. It was an exciting time of my life, though I must admit… sometimes it was chaotic. But nevertheless, it was filled with charms, cheers, changes, and challenges, memories remain endearing.
A.M.U provided me with the basic building blocks to become a successful entrepreneur, to assume serious responsibilities, and most importantly, to become a passionate leader. Aligarh provided me with an excellent education.
More importantly, it instilled core values that have served me in good stead throughout my adult life. They include:
- A love for passion and education
- Eternal optimism about your hopes and dreams
- Being collegial and candid towards all
- Keeping steadfast to your standard of excellence
- Living in peace and harmony by being tolerant & respectful toward the dignity of each person.
These values continues to be my guiding principles.
This brings me to Part 2 of my story: Lessons from America.
Now let me tell you a little bit about my story in America. I share them not because I expect you to imitate my path or adopt my perspective, but, because I hope they will be useful as you chart your own path.
When I went to the United States from India at a 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. This was 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 in America had five stages:
- Getting a good education
- Taking a risk
- Becoming an entrepreneur
- Building a strong and talented team who shared my vison and values
- Broadening my horizon
I got my masters and bachelors in computer science at the University of Colorado. Then, I worked with two major information technology firms which gave me skills and real world grounding that I needed to be a business owner.
Within 13 years, along with my management team, we took that firm from a workforce of 1 employee to more than 3,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue. It is America’s inclusiveness and openness that provided me ladders of opportunity to succeed. These are the values and qualities of America that all of us can proudly and truly embrace.
The team of talented managers was central to everything. Success in business is a team sport. So, when you ask me how I became successful, it was not me but we who made it happen.
My journey was not a straight line. Indeed, there were numerous twists and turns. What enabled me to prevail on the journey was a belief in myself and those around me and the opportunity presented by the American dream.
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, here in India and around the world. Now I am concentrating on community and social engagement and on philanthropic activities by giving back. In this regard, I am reminded and guided by the words of President Kennedy, who said: “To whom much is given. Much is expected”.
My primary reason for coming to India this trip was to dedicate a new Management Complex at AMU that my wife Debbie and I funded through our foundation. That dedication was held on Feb 12. At the dedication, I said:
“While the bricks and mortar are important, far more significant is who will be in and what will go on in this setting? It will be a place for sharing of information and imparting and development of knowledge. It will be a space where faculty and students can collaborate on innovative projects. It will be an educational empowerment zone.”
The same holds true for all of you students here at BHU. You are in an empowerment zone in your classrooms and conversations with faculty, staff and your fellow students. You are gaining the knowledge, skills and abilities to make a difference in your lives and the lives of others.
And, in the long run that is what matters. I will say more on that in a moment. Before I do though, let me say that this decade since I sold my company has been the most personally rewarding of my life.
Giving back has meant much more to me than reaping the financial resources. I look at my contributions not as charity but as in investment in the future.
The return on that investment is others who will benefit from that investment and do the same. So these investments have an incredible multiplier effect.
The sale of my company, the establishment of my foundation and becoming civically engaged has also given me the time to reflect on what were the important takeaways and advice that I could give others as they contemplate how to structure and take their own journey.
Before I go to part 3 of my talk, I would like to shed some light on Interfaith Dialogue and why it matters? I just received Interfaith Leadership Award in Washington DC. I strongly believe in Interfaith Dialogue as it brings people together and it increases religious and cultural unity. It allows to build bridges, to breakdown the barrier, and to promote dialogue with various faiths and to promote as shared sense of community. India has long succeeded because it is diverse, inclusive, and tolerant. I believe diverse society is a strength as it enriches a nation and ensures all people have equal chance to succeed. We need to step up, speak up, and speak out by rejecting the voices that seek to divide us or to limit our civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights. Therefore, all of us together should continue to build a fairer, stronger, and just India with inclusive economic growth. We need to stand together. And, together, we can help shape a better future. I ask all of you to remember fundamental acceptance of equality of other religions by not looking to the heavens and to the Gods whom we worship but by looking at the earth and people and family that we are. We need to strengthen the bonds that binds us as one family. There are a lot that unite us and there is a little that divide us. Our relationship should not be defined by differences but what we can do together by being a difference maker. Our bonds are stronger than the differences that too often drive us apart.
Now back to Part 3 of my presentation – or what I call Lessons from Life.
I have to say that I am not a big one for giving advice and am somewhat uncomfortable in doing so. As those of you in this audience can understand, it’s kind of contrary to my upbringing.
Nonetheless, let me share some thoughts that I have seen or heard and leaven them with a few insights of my own. My advice or lessons from life are:
- Stay true to you
- Be something special to someone in particular.
- Be a life-long learner.
- Never give up
- Create your own legacy
Stay true to you. This has always been one of my personal mantras. Steve Jobs said something similar. In a commencement address at Stanford University, he advised the graduates, “Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
Be something special to someone in particular. I think it was Ted Leavitt from Harvard University who said that. Know who your target customers are. Develop your product or service to delight them. Exceed their expectations. Don’t be satisfied with being a me-too or doing something just good enough.
Be a life-long learner. Study hard but remember that life’s lessons are taught inside and outside the classroom and they are never ending. So, commit to learning at least one new thing everyday. Use the new things you learn to continue to reinvent yourself.
Never give in. Winston Churchill said that to the school boys at Harrow School in 1941 near the beginning of World War II “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.” That was good advice more than seventy years ago. It is good advice today.
Create Your Own Legacy. Realize that, whether wittingly or unwittingly, we are writing the narrative for our lives in the way we conduct ourselves both personally and professionally. Professor Clayton Christenson from Harvard put it this way, “Think about the metric by which your life will be judged and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”
Let me also add the following advice:
Be the best you can be
Exploit your fullest potentials
Be the change that you would like to see happen
Be the leader for the next generations
Do not forget your heritage and roots
Those are the three parts of my talk: Lessons from India, Lessons from America, and Lessons from Life. Now it’s time for my request to you students which is also three parts. That request is:
- Don’t think anything is impossible
- Make it your journey
- Do well but also do good
Don’t think anything is impossible. If you would have asked me more than 40 years ago coming from a middle class family in India could I achieve and accomplish what I have, I probably would have said no. I was not certain about where I would end up when I went from India to the United States. But, I knew absolutely that working hard, aiming high and getting the right education was the key to success.
I am confident that the same will be true for you no matter where you or your family is currently on the economic ladder.
A quality education has been the great equalizer, opportunity creator and liberator for Indian citizens of all religions and for Indians at the bottom rungs of the ladder. For those on the other rungs of the ladder, a quality education has helped to cultivate the creativity, compassion and commitment to make the economic ladder stronger, to put more rungs on it, and to enable more people to make their way up it.
That is why I ask you to don’t think anything is impossible. There are numerous stories here in India of the successes of graduates of modest means from your institution, BHU, and other institutions in India. There are numerous success stories in the United States as well.
Make It Your Journey. Even though I have shared information about my journey with you, you will succeed by making it your own journey.
Frank Islam’s journey was Frank Islam’s journey. Just as Bill Gates was Bill Gates. Steve Jobs was Steve Jobs.
My story is testimony to the fact that any thing is possible if you make it your journey.
Do Well But Also Do Good. In making it your journey, I am encouraging you to succeed but do not forget those who have been less successful. You should extend your hand, hope, help, and heart to those who are less successful, who are less fortunate, who are socially and economically disadvantaged and who are voiceless and who are venerable. Let us empower them with education and economic mobility. Let us help them through their darkest moments of their lives. When they succeed. All of us succeed. India succeed. World succeed.
I am asking you also to work to deliver on the compelling vision of your founder, Pandit Malaviya Ji, who during his Presidential address in the Lahore session of Congress in 1909 declared,
“I have faith in the future of my country. I have no doubt that the policy of preferential treatment of one community over another and all other obstacles which keep the great communities of India from acting together, will slowly but steadily disappear.”
Malaviya Ji went on to say,
“Feelings of patriotism and brotherliness will continue to increase among Hindus, Mohemmedans, Christians and Parsees, until they shall flow like a smooth but mighty river welding the people of all communities into a great and united nation, which shall realize a glorious future for India and secure to it a place of honor among the nations of the world.”
Malaviya Ji spoke those words in the first decade of the 20th century, we are gathered here today in the second decade of the 21st century and there still is not a “smooth but mighty river” here in India. But, there is a strong stream and I sincerely believe given the challenges going on around that world that India is poised to “secure a place of honor among the nations of the world.”
The time is now and the stage is ours. The future is in your hands. The need is critical. So, I am asking as part of your own personal journey that you commit to working with your peers from BHU and individuals from other institutions and religions from across India to create “that mighty river.” I also know that there are those among you who will work with others from many nations and all denominations around the globe to make the world a better place.
With that thought, I am confident that you will honor my request and help to deliver on Malaviya Ji’s vision because as I look at those of you in this audience I see me in you, I see the future of India, and I see the future of the world.
Let us commit ourselves that BHU remains a beacon of hope, aspirations and dream. Let us commit ourselves to ensure Pandit Malaviya Ji’s cause endures and his dream shall never die. Let us keep his memory alive. Let us keep the hope alive. Let us carry the torch handed over to us by Pandit Malaviya Ji
Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you. It has been inspiring and reaffirming for me to see the future first hand. Good luck and god speed on your journey!
God bless you all