Dean Haddock, Members of the Faculty, Students, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for your hospitality. I appreciate your warm welcome. It is great to be here today.
It is a privilege and a special honor to be asked to deliver this commencement address. I am especially pleased to be here to do so because as a member of the Dean’s Council I have gotten to see the George Mason School of Management up close and personal.
From that perspective, I believe that the School does an exceptional job of blending education and experience to ensure that you students have the right skills for future success. So, thanks to the administration for the invitation, to the faculty who provide the nurturing environment here and most of all to you students who bring the passion and the brainpower to make this such a vibrant and vital institution.
As I look out at those of you graduating today, I see me. I see the future of America. I see the future of the world. I want to devote my address to telling you what I see. Before I do so, though, let me tell you what I think.
That is, this commencement is the starting line and not the finish line. If you look up commencement in the dictionary, it has two definitions. The first is “a ceremony in which academic degrees are conferred.” The second is “a beginning.”
I would like to focus your attention on the second – a beginning. The beginning of a journey. Some of you may already have that journey well plotted out. Others of you may be in the exploratory phase.
I want to share with you a little of my journey because as I said, when I look at you I see me. Many years ago, I was sitting in a seat at a commencement exercise as you are today—prepared for the journey but not exactly sure where it would take me and what would be required to succeed. Let me tell you what I learned.
Woody Allen said, “90% of success is showing up.” I became successful by concentrating on the other 10%. That 10% was:
- Getting a good education
- Doing my apprenticeship
- Becoming an entrepreneur
- Building a strong team
- Moving on to other things
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.
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.
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.
So again, as I look at you I see me. There are other Frank Islam’s in this graduating class today. Your journey will not be the same as mine but I am confident that it will be as rewarding.
Because, when I look at you I see America’s future – the diversity in this audience is breathtaking and inspiring. It is a testimony to the quality of George Mason University and the genius of America.
America is an immigrant nation. There is no other country like it in the world. I came here as an immigrant from India at the age of 15.
With the exception of the Native Americans, we are all immigrants. Some of you may trace your immigrant roots back for centuries. Others may be first generation citizens – or even in the process of getting citizenship. No matter where you stand in the immigration lineage line there is much of which to be proud.
The achievements and the contributions of immigrants to this nation’s success are legion. Famous first generation American immigrants, to name just a few, include: Albert Einstein, physicist who came here from Germany; I.M. Pei, architect from China. Joseph Pulitzer newspaper publisher from Hungary: Felix Frankfurter, Supreme Court justice from Austria; Madeline Albright, Secretary of State from Czechoslovakia; and, Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder who came here from Russia. And, the list could go on and on. Add second generation immigrants to the list and it could go on forever.
Immigration is the American story. The future is the American story. And, as I said I see you graduates as the future of America writing new chapters for that story.
I also see you as the future of the world. That is because I believe that as President Lincoln said many years ago, the United States is the “world’s last best hope.” The world is much more complicated and contentious today than when President Lincoln spoke those words in 1862. It needs the pro-active and positive involvement of our citizens and leaders now more than ever.
You graduates bring that hope to the world because of the education and the experience that you have received here at George Mason University. The Global Residency Program has provided each of you with a global perspective and an opportunity to see the world and to develop your own world-view. That perspective and those views will enable you to be valuable contributors to shaping the world’s future.
I was asked to give you some advice as part of this commencement speech. I have to say that I am not a big one for giving advice. It’s kind of contrary to my upbringing.
So, let me share some thoughts that I have seen or heard and leaven it with a few insights of my own. My advice is:
- Stay true to you
- Be something special to someone in particular.
- Be a life-long learner.
- Never give in
- Create your own legacy
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.”
Be something special to someone in particular. I think it was Ted Leavitt from Harvard 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 creating the narrative of our legacy 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 add to my advice one request. That is “Be a 21st Century Citizen.” This is an important request because a nation is no better than its citizens.
In fact, the citizens are the nation – whether it’s a farmer, a factory worker, an entrepreneur, a teacher, an immigrant, a politician, we are all citizens and how we assemble ourselves and what we accomplish defines the fabric, psyche and soul of the country.
Over the past few years, there have been a lot of complaints regarding our politics, our politicians, and our government. Some of that criticism is warranted.
On the other hand, we must remember that the United States is a representative democracy. At the end of the day, we get the politicians and the government we deserve. If we don’t like things in this great democracy of ours, we can change them. That is our right and responsibility as citizens.
One of my favorite quotes in this regard comes from John Fitzgerald Kennedy. President Kennedy said, “In a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, “holds office”; every one of us is in a position of responsibility;and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends on how we fulfill those responsibilities.”
I ask you to fulfill those responsibilities by being a 21st Century Citizen who plays in the “3-I” League:
- Be Informed – do your homework, get all the facts
- Be Independent – exercise your personal judgment
- Be Involved – get engaged pro-actively on issues that matter to you
If you commit to being a 21st Century citizen and to playing in that league, part of your legacy will be that you helped to renew America and the American dream.
As I close, let me say as the song goes “I Can See Clearly Now.” I can see me in you. I can see America’s future in you. I can see the world’s future in you. These are great sights to see.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell you what I see. I hope that it will be helpful to you as you undertake this new and solemn journey.
God bless you