STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)
STERN (Students to Entrepreneurs Renewing Nature/Nations)
Western Science Dean, Dr. Charmaine Dean, Vice President Cole, Members of the faculty, students, ladies and gentlemen:
Thank you for your hospitality and warm welcome. I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to Dr. Dean and Paula Luchak for inviting me to speak with this fine group of young leaders.
As I look into the audience today, I see the future of Canada, indeed the next generation of global trailblazers, pioneers and entrepreneurs. I also see the future of the world.
It is a distinct pleasure and honor for me and my wife Debbie to be here to share this time with you. My wife completed her undergraduate studies in Computer Science here and I met her when I came to Canada to pursue a degree at McMaster after completing graduate work at the University of Colorado. This campus brings back many pleasant memories.
I have always held Western University in high esteem as it is recognized widely for its accomplishments in research, the quality of its training and its commitment to saving the planet and making the world a better place.
“Expanding the impact of our teaching and research on the international stage is an institutional priority at Western University that’s highlighted in our mission to develop global citizens whose education and leadership serves the public good.”
These are the sentiments that President Chakma chose to share upon being named as one of the three recipients of the prestigious Michael P. Malone International Leadership Award.
Dean of Science, Charmaine Dean further underscored the vision and the values at Western University on the Western Science website commenting that, “At Western, faculty and students follow their passions and strive to expand the global knowledge base. At the same time they are receptive to emerging areas so they may responsibly participate in solving the problems of today and tomorrow.”
Those remarks, in conjunction with my understanding of the role this wonderful University plays in shaping the global leaders of the future, helped me to frame and to title my talk: From STEM to STERN.
From STEM – that’s Science Technology Engineering and Math to STERN – that’s Students to Entrepreneurs Renewing Nature and Nations.
As the title implies, Western students are being educated for a purpose. That purpose is to make a difference.
The title also suggests that you have embarked on a lifelong journey. And, that journey will require making a transition and translating the knowledge, skills and abilities that you are developing here at Western University and applying them in other settings – to address challenges, to make opportunities into realities, and to contribute positively to the world around you.
I want to share some thoughts that I hope will help you in making that transition and translation. Specifically, I will discuss:
- the concept of entrepreneurship
- the characteristics of the entrepreneur
- development of the skills and disposition required of an entrepreneur
Before I go further, however, let me get to know you a bit better:
- First, I know there students representing a variety of faculties across campus. With a show of hands, please indicate whether you are: in Science; Engineering; Business? Social Science?
- Second, if you’ve thought about becoming an entrepreneur when you graduate, hold your hand up.
- Third, who is a Canadian citizen?
My quick survey shows that- some of you aren’t “STEM” winders and come from other disciplines; several of you haven’t considered the entrepreneurial path; and, many of you come from a nation other than Canada.
But I believe that what I have to say will have relevance for all of you because you all have already exhibited drive, commitment and the ability to lead. I’m fairly confident my comments will not be lost in translation. With that said, let’s get to the heart of the matter.
Definition of an Entrepreneur
What and who is an entrepreneur? There are various definitions. One that appeals to me is the entrepreneur is “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.”
I like that definition because it emphasizes “any enterprise” and extends the definition beyond just the business owner. A person can be entrepreneurial in any type of organization as long as he or she is willing to step up to the plate and take a leadership role in shaping the direction of the enterprise or the portion which he or she controls.
Another definition I like was provided by Professor Howard Stevenson of the Harvard Business School almost 40 years ago. Professor Stevenson said “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” In other words, entrepreneurs are not constrained in their thinking.
Now, let me combine those two definitions into one of my own definition.
Entrepreneurs are dreamers who dare. They are seekers that seize the moment and take calculated risks to create the enterprises and jobs of the future.
Working within that construct, 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.
It all begins, the journey that is, with desire, the want – the very need- to be an entrepreneur.
Many years ago, I was sitting in classrooms at University as you are today. I was preparing to embark on a career path but was not exactly sure where it would take me or what would be required to succeed.
Let me tell you a little bit about my journey and what I learned.
I came to the United States from India at the age of 15.
I earned my bachelor and master degrees in computer science at the University of Colorado. That gave me the baseline knowledge that I needed to consider developing an IT-related business. When I graduated with an advanced degree, I understood the need to acquire 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 – the ins and outs of doing business, in this case with the government. That gave me the skills and real world grounding that I needed to eventually start my own business.
After doing my apprenticeship, in 1994, I purchased the QSS Group for $45,000. Within thirteen years, along with a strong 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’s an impressive trajectory and I did play a role in achieving that success: I learned how to pick great people and support and encourage their creativity and excellence. It was not me but we who made it happen. Success in business is a team sport.
And, I can’t emphasize enough the extent to which each member of the team, and in particular its leader, must demonstrate both passion and persistence. “Staying the course” is essential in pursuing business success.
Most of our journeys, mine included, was not a straight line. It was not always easy. And, the final destination was not certain.
During the early years, my team and I faced a number of critical issues – the ones that make or break a business such as: will we win the contract? (pause) will I get the bank loan? (pause) 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 the capital required for expansion, and finding and maintaining the talented management team who shared my vision and my values.
Finding the capital we need was solved by developing a relationship with a bank and banker where my business mattered. On the management side, I realized I needed folks who had communications and customer relationship skills, as well as a commitment to quality that fit in with my world view. It took a while to get that right. And once I did, the company took off in terms of growth, profitability and customer satisfaction.
I was constantly learning from mistakes. That’s part of risk-taking and maturing. Do something. Try something. Move forward if it’s right. Learn something if it’s wrong. Try again. That’s the entrepreneurship.
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. The greatest leaders in history surrounded themselves with people who espoused the same basic values but brought their own unique strengths to the table.
As I mentioned, my journey was not a straight line. In fact, there were numerous twists and turns.
What enabled me to prevail was a belief in myself and those around me and the opportunity presented by the American dream.
Success breeds success. It inspired me to continue to move forward. As importantly, failure taught me to never go backward. I knew implicitly that you needed to move ahead and that if you did not you would be left behind – a hard but vital lesson learned early on.
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. I firmly believe: To whom much is given much is expected. I am always reminded and guided by this phrase.
That’s my journey in a nutshell.
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 “Frank Islam Difference.”
The Frank Islam Difference meant focusing on the critical few areas that make a success possible. For me 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. My first government client was NASA.
They appreciated the value inherent in my scientific background and executive experience at Raytheon, a well-known and highly esteemed defense contractor in the United States. 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 upon which to expand our business.
That brings me to the third area, niche differentiation. We didn’t expand willy-nilly, without a strategic plan. We grew the business outward from our core client business to those with similar characteristics and needs. QSS’ first work outside NASA was with the FDIC. After that, we added the Department of Defense and other agencies such as Homeland Security.
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. QSS focus on quality control would not let that happen!
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: 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 with Steve Jobs and 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. It’s what we see occurring now with the trend toward 3-D manufacturing.
The successful entrepreneur is never satisfied with the status quo. He or she is always pushing the outer edge of the envelope to do things faster, better and differently in a manner that matters to the customer.
As I noted near the outset of this speech, the entrepreneur does this by finding the resources required to exploit opportunities when they present themselves. As Professor Stevenson from Harvard 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.”
It is said that managers do things right: Leaders do the right thing. Doing the right thing is the essence of leadership and entrepreneurship.
In order to do the right thing, the entrepreneur must have the proper skills and disposition.
Entrepreneurial Skills and Disposition
There are both hard and soft skills. In my opinion, the soft skills are the hard stuff to master, and the hard skills are fairly easy.
Hard skills include the technical knowledge, competencies and abilities required to do effective problem solving. Soft skills include things such as listening, learning from your peers, and working in a team.
I have to admit that when I was a student, for a variety of reasons, I excelled at the hard stuff. I didn’t develop the soft skills until I got out into the business world and had role models and mentors that stressed bi-directional communication and collaboration.
My advice to you is to build both skill sets now and shorten your learning curve to becoming an entrepreneur. Let me offer some additional advice that I think could be useful in your entrepreneurial journey:
- Stay true to yourself
- 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.”
The Renewal Challenge
In closing, I’d like you to consider this request that is for each of you to accept the role and responsibilities of moving from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to STERN (Students to Entrepreneurs Renewing Nature and Nations).
The world needs you desperately. We live in a world that is environmentally, economically and ethically challenged.
You have the good fortune to be at a great university that is in the forefront of addressing those challenges. Western has been a leader for almost a century. Your faculty and graduates have provided cutting-edge discoveries and development such as the design of radar technologies that helped win the Second World War, the creation of insulin, treatment of cervical cancer, wind engineering, business education, and medical advances.
This wonderful institution has produced Nobel Laureates, Rhodes Scholars and many government officials, academics and business leaders. More importantly, it currently has more than 300,000 alumni in over 130 countries around the globe. Those are the boots on the ground today working to make this a safer and better world.
Western is preparing you to be the next generation of leaders so that you can make your contributions to solving those challenges that confront us. I ask that you make those contributions by doing well —-and by doing good. Recognizing that it’s not just about the pay check, the career path, or the corner office, it is also about the countries, communities, and citizens. It is about focusing on sharing and caring. It is about creating your own legacy.
Nature and nations need renewal and healing. I am confident that you will become the future leaders in that “renewal and healing” process
That’s because you are students here. Western is building knowledge, skills and the concepts of global citizenship and constructive entrepreneurship into your DNA and genetic code. It is equipping and inspiring you to do well and to do good.
I hope the ideas that I have shared here will make some modest contribution in that regard as well. Thanks for the privilege of speaking with you today.
Good luck on your journey and creating your legacy. I wish you all the best. I wish you continued success.
God bless you all.