Frank F. Islam
The US-India Startup Forum in Mumbai
February 22, 2017
Thank you, Sajna, for your kind introduction.
Thank you for your hospitality and your warm welcome
This is my 14th speech in a fortnight in India. So bear with me if I am a little low on energy!
How can one be low on energy in Mumbai, the Maximum City, right?
Every time I visit India, I try to visit Mumbai just to recharge my batteries. It’s either do that or drink a 5-Hour Energy shot.
How many of you have you heard of 5-Hour Energy?
My theory is that the Indian American entrepreneur Manoj Bhargava, who founded 5-Hour Energy, was inspired by Mumbai’s hustle and bustle.
All joking aside, I truly believe Mumbai — for long the fountain of India’s entrepreneurship — is a truly inspiring city. It is wonderful to be back in this magical place. (Pause.)
I am also truly delighted to be here with all of you budding entrepreneurs today to deliver this keynote address. In which I will share my thoughts on the importance of entrepreneurship and the U.S. India relationship and talk about my own experience and learnings as an entrepreneur.
Before I do so, however, I want to thank American Bazaar for inviting me to give this address and for hosting the US-India Startup Forum series in different Indian cities. It is a great endeavor on your part to connect US investors and Indian startups. Here is why this connection is so important to the future of both of these great nations.
India is one of the youngest countries in the world. More than half of the nation’s population is below the age of 25. The economic reform launched more than a quarter century ago has unleashed the wild spirit of entrepreneurship in this country. There is no better example for that than this room. Young and restless, you are the future of the country and the world.
The United States is the one country where there is no dearth for capital. You have a great idea, and you have passion for executing it you are almost certain to find someone to back you in the United States. The American capitalist’s ability to spot and nurture ideas and talent is legendary. The investors in this room symbolize that.
I am convinced that this endeavor — the US-India Startup Forum — is an excellent platform to connect the US-investors and Indian startups.
Today, India and the United States are joined at the hip — economically speaking — because of the efforts of not just the two governments, but also because of the efforts like these at the people-to-people level.
And what a relationship the two countries have built in the past couple of decades!
When I first left the shores of India, nearly forty years ago, the two nations had a different kind of relationship. Despite both being democracies that shared values and rule of law, each was suspicious of the other’s intention.
At best, they were indifferent to each other. History has shown that period of indifference was a loss for both nations.
The relationship tide began to turn at the end of the Cold War, in the early 1990s, when India began opening up its economy. In the past two decades, there is not a single field where India and the United States are not cooperating — or talking about cooperating — and exchanging and sharing ideas. Some of the areas in which our countries are working together include defense and counter-terrorism; agriculture, healthcare, science & technology; climate change, arts and science, to name just a few.
Both countries are substantially better off because of that cooperation. It has not been just a one-way street.
Six years ago, during his visit to Mumbai, President Obama said in a speech, not very far from here, that the United States is far richer because of more than 3 million Indian Americans living in the United States.
The contributions of Indian Americans to the US economy — especially in fields such as information technology, healthcare and hospitality — are well documented. Similarly well documented are the US contributions to India’s information technology revolution.
It is a well-known fact that US companies acted as a catalyst in the growth of India’s IT industry. Today, half of the revenue generated by the Indian IT industry comes from the United States.
Initially, the major beneficiaries of the increased US-India trade were major Indian and US companies. More recently smaller businesses and startups have benefited as well. A number of US investors, among them many Indian Americans, have invested in Indian startups in recent years.
When President Obama was in Delhi in 2015 as PM Modi’s the Guest of Honor at the Republic Day celebrations, he announced a “public-private partnership” which allows Indian Americans to directly invest in India’s future.
I was part of the President Obama’s business delegation during that visit and was fortunate to be present when he announced the Indian Diaspora Investment Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to generate a stream of funding for businesses investing in non-traditional markets.
An event like this allows investors from the United States, both institutional and individual investors, to get a first-hand experience of India’s startup ecosystem. From the startups’ standpoint, it gives you an opportunity to interact with and learn about the investment philosophy of these investors.
So I encourage all of you to seize the opportunity this event provides. During his 2010 visit, President Obama declared, “We are two free market economies where people have the freedom to pursue ideas and innovation that can change the world. And, that’s why I believe that India and America are indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time.”
This event brings these indispensable partners together to explore those ideas and innovations that can change the world. So, I encourage all of you to seize the moment and take advantage of the opportunity the event provides.
I would like to change gears now and move from the abstract and conceptual to the concrete and personal by sharing a little with you regarding my entrepreneurial journey and the lessons that I have learned and insights that I have gained along the way.
In my opinion, the entrepreneur is a person who:
- Recognizes that becoming an entrepreneur is a journey
- Thinks small to win big
- Sees opportunities where others see problems
Let me address each of these characteristics in turn.
My own journey consisted of seven phases:
- Getting a good education
- Doing my apprenticeship
- Taking a risk
- Becoming an entrepreneur
- Building a strong and talented team who shared my vison and values
- Staying the course
- Broadening my horizon
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 founded the QSS Group. Within thirteen years, along with my key management team, we took that firm from a workforce of 1 employee – me – to more than 3,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue.
That was a good trajectory for the business. I had a role to play in that success.
But, when people ask me how I became successful, I respond that 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.
Before I close this section of my talk, let me talk about passion and persistence. Those are the ingredients for “staying the course.”
They were essential because 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 such as: 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. For the 13 years I was in business, I worked seven days a week.
As my business grew, the biggest challenges were getting access to the capital required for expansion and finding the talented management team who shared my vision.
After a few false starts, I solved the capital problem by finding a bank and banker where my business matter. On the management side, I was originally looking for folks who were technically skilled. After some time and the wrong hires, I realized that if they didn’t have communication and customer relationship skills and a commitment to quality and my world view, we couldn’t build the kind of business that I wanted.
If I had to do it all over again, I would place finding the right core team -4 to 6 – individuals at the top of my agenda. After I found them, the company took off in terms of growth, profitability and customer satisfaction.
One other thing I would do differently, if I got a do-over, would be to a little less internally focused on the day-to-day of business operations and direct more attention to reaching out for targets of opportunity whether they were in product development or in terms of new clients.
As a mentioned, my journey was not a straight line. Indeed there were numerous twists and turns in my journey.
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. 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. You must celebrate success- and treat failures as opportunities for improvement.
I must emphasize that in spite of the difficulties that I just have described being an entrepreneur has been a completely joyous experience for me. I love entrepreneurship. There is nothing like the excitement, glory, fun, and sheer thrill of starting something from scratch and watching it grow into a large enterprise of astonishing proportions. I say to all of you, if you have the opportunity to be an entrepreneur – grab it. Find passionate and driven people who share your sense of purpose. Share your vision, set the direction, give them all the necessary resources, give them the space to operate, and then work together with them to make things happen. Revel in the endeavor.
As Sajna told you in my introduction, in 2007 I sold my company to Perot Systems. That allowed me to establish a private foundation that supports educational, cultural and artistic causes in the United States and around the world.
That’s my journey in a nutshell. I hope that it is instructive. I share it not because I expect your journey to be the same as mine but I know that in this room today there are other Frank Islam’s.
While each of our journeys should and must be different, I think that there is a common approach that an entrepreneur 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 well, by concentrating on the 10%. I’d call that that the “Islam Difference.”
The Islam Difference meant focusing and paying careful attention to the critical few areas that make a difference for 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 Washington 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. My first government client was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA.) 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. 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.
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.
This brings me to the third characteristic of the entrepreneur which I will address briefly. The entrepreneur sees opportunities where others see problems.
Some people refer to that as vision. I call it identifying an unfilled need and satisfying it.
Sometimes, as was the case of Steve Jobs with the I-phone or Jeff Bezos at Amazon it includes creating and shaping customer expectations for a type or quality of product or service that doesn’t exist in the market place currently.
No matter what it is, the entrepreneur is never satisfied with the status quo. She or he is always pushing the outer edge of the envelope to do things faster, better and differently in a manner that matters to the customer.
The entrepreneur does this by finding the resources required to exploit opportunities when they present themselves. As Professor Howard Stevenson of Harvard Business School puts it, “They see an opportunity and don’t feel constrained from pursuing it because they lack resources. They are used to making do without resources.”
To put it another way, the entrepreneur sees the pursuit of possibilities as doing the right thing. In order to do the right thing, the entrepreneur must have the proper skills and disposition.
In summary, those are the seven defining characteristics of the entrepreneur that I would identify and the advice that I would give to you:
- Recognize that becoming an entrepreneur is a journey
- Think small to win big
- See opportunities where others see problems
- Establish a clear vision and build acceptance and commitment to it.
- Create an environment where people can be truly committed
- Exude positive energy and optimism and create a “can-do” culture
- Inspire learning by setting the examples
In closing, let me leave you with one final thought and piece of advice. That is
Write your own legacy. This is the city of Jamshedji Tata and Dhirubhai Ambani—giants of Indian entrepreneurship, who blazed tremendous trails and touched countless lives. You do not have to look elsewhere for inspiration. But you do need to look to yourself. You need to exploit your fullest potential. You have to believe in yourself.
Harvard Business School’s Prof. Clayton Christensen has stated: “I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.”
He further tells his MBA students: “Don’t worry about the individual prominence you have achieved, worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”
Picking up on Professor Christensen’s advice, I say do well but also do good. Do well in your business so that you can do good for India. Invest in others by sharing and giving back. Make your success India’s success.
I wish all of you great success with your ventures. I look forward to reading about your successes. I am sure you will soon transform your passion into profits.
It has been a privilege speaking with you. I wish you all the best. God bless you all!