Frank F. Islam
La Martiniere Girls College
The Keys for the Journey: Education, Empowerment, Entrepreneurship
Distinguished Guests; Principal Dass; Mr. Jetley; Members of the faculty; Staff; Friends; and Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for that kind introduction.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to Mr. Jetley and Principal Dass for inviting me to speak on this special occasion.
Thank you, Mr. Jetley, for being here. You always lighten our load and lift our spirit.
Thank you Principal Dass for your leadership and your vison and commitment in educating the next generations. We admire and appreciate all you do to make a difference. You provide the example and set the standard. You are creating the hope and dream and the future for the next generations of entrepreneurs, leaders, problem solvers, and innovators. Let us give her a big round of applause.
I also want to recognize my dear friend Ali Rizvi and my brother Dr. Islam and his wife for joining us this morning.
It is truly a pleasure to be in the timeless city of Lucknow. This city has been a beacon of learning. It has always has been known as a multifaith and multicultural city, and seat of power of Nawabs in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is an honor for me to be here at La Martiniere Girls College. Your college has the stellar reputation. Also, your college is one of the best in all of India. Congratulations to the administration, faculty and students on that accomplishment.
It is even more special for me to be here because it is almost like coming home. I did not go to college at La Martiniere. But I was born in Azamgarh in this state of Uttar Pradesh.
As I look at you students in the audience, I see me in you. I see the future of India. I see the future of the world. You are the hope of tomorrow. You are the promise and potential of India and the world. You have the capacity to change the landscape of India and the world.
I have had a life long passion and commitment to improving girl’s access to and participation in meaningful education. I want to make sure that their voices are heard and they are not ignored. If we empower girls through education, they are most likely to control their own destiny.
Also, as I look at you, it is almost like peering into a looking glass. Looking into that glass causes me to reflect upon the journey that I have made over the past fifty years. As I think about my own journey, it causes me to think about your journey to come over the next fifty years.
That is what I want to talk with you about today. My journey and your journey.
At the outset, let me state that the keys for the journey for me were: education, empowerment and entrepreneurship. I believe those will be the keys for you as well. I will explain why latter in my remarks.
Let me begin, however, by observing that I think that you young female students are living in a special century. The 21st century. I believe that this 21st century will be known as the century of the woman.
In past centuries, men have dominated almost all facets of life – except for family life. In this century, this will no longer be the case. But there are still barriers to be broken for girls to gain success.
Women have always played some role and started to play larger and larger roles in society in the 20th century. We have begun to tap into that potential and will unleash that potential completely in this 21st century.
Realizing that potential will be liberating. For you young students your potential will be limitless.
Through education, empowerment and entrepreneurship you will be able to achieve your full potential. By doing so, you will help make India and the world a better place.
With that thought, let me now turn to my journey.
My journey is divided into two parts:
- Lessons from India
- Lessons from America.
I will start with Part I of my story: 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.
My home city: Even though I was born and spent the first few years of my life in Azamgarh, I call Varanasi my home city. I treasure the city of Varanasi. No matter where I am, the memory of Varanasi lingers on my mind. I have fond memory of this city. It is where my journey began. It is a beautiful city and a tolerant one. It is where I learned about the richness of different religions and respect for other religions.
My university: Last, but not least is Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). My days at A.M.U. have had a profound effect on me.
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 and passion for 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 continue to be my guiding principles today.
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.
I went to the United States from India to pursue the American dream. I wasn’t quite sure how I would achieve that dream.
I knew even then, however, 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 the 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 – me – to more than 3,000 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, 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”. In many ways process of sharing and giving back is as – and even more rewarding – than any of the money that I earned throughout my business career.
That’s my journey in a nutshell. My journey was not a straight line. Indeed, there were numerous twists and turns. There were many dark and desperate days.
It was not always easy. And the final destination was not certain.
During the early years, there were myriad of issues to be dealt with: 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.
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. And more importantly, failure taught me to never go backward. Thus, failure is the first step to success.
My story can only happen in America. I am beneficiary of America’s kindness and generosity. It is America’s inclusiveness and openness that provided me ladders of opportunity to succeed. These are the strengths and values of America that all of us can proudly and truly embrace.
Those are the two parts of my journey. Now let me talk about to you girls, your journey and the themes of education, empowerment and entrepreneurship.
Last year, my wife Debbie and I dedicated a new Management Complex at AMU that we funded through our foundation. At that 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 La Martiniere. 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. You will become ambassadors and role model for others.
And, in the long run that is what matters. I know you girls realize that. I know that you understand that education is not just about book learning or studying for the test.
Education is the gift that keeps on giving. It is opportunity creator and bridge to the future. It is powerful equalizer for all to lift themselves out of poverty. Education helps create higher aspirations and higher aspirations propel individual and move the nation forward.
Education prepares the girl to become a change agent. Too many families are trapped in poverty because of lack of education. With her own education, the girls who becomes a woman and a mother can educate and equip her children to escape that trap.
Education is about preparing for life. I know that you recognize that your graduation from this marvelous institution will not be the finish line but will be the starting line for the next part of your journey.
Given that perspective, what advice would I give for that phase of your journey? My advice is:
- Stay true to you
- Be a life-long learner.
- Never give in
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 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 every day. 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 almost 80 years ago. It is good advice today.
That’s my advice. Now, let me the make the following requests to go along with that advice:
- 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. That is why I ask you to don’t think anything is impossible.
Make It Your Journey. Even though I have shared information about my journey with you, you will succeed by making it your own journey. My story is testimony to the fact that anything is possible if you make it your journey. Don’t be a copycat. Write your own story. Chart your own path. Cerate a set of values that are unique to your area of endeavor.
Do Well But Also Do Good. In making it your journey, I encourage you to succeed but do not forget those who have been less successful. Extend your hand, your hope, your help, and your heart to those who are less fortunate, who are socially and economically disadvantaged and who are voiceless and who are vulnerable. Reach out and empower them with education and inclusive economic mobility. Help them through their darkest moments of their lives. Please remember, when they succeed, all of us succeed. India succeeds. The world succeeds.
In closing, let me make one more request. That is to be an entrepreneur. Let me clarify what I mean by requesting that.
I am not asking you to be a businessperson. What I am asking you to do is to search for and to find new and better ways of doing things.
There are entrepreneurs in every field from science and technology, to teaching, to medicine, to politics, to the arts, to social work, to parenting. The list could go on forever. I am asking that you find your field, your vocation of choice and to innovate within it.
That might seem a little scary or far-fetched. But, remember as I said at the outset of my remarks, the 21st century will be the century of women.
And, I am confident that because of the education and empowerment that you are receiving here at La Martiniere, if you set your mind to it and persevere, you will be one of those women who will make it so.
By doing this, you will be standing on the shoulders of Indian women giants from the 20th century. Women such as Indira Gandhi, the first and only woman to be prime minister of India, Anandi Gopal Joshi, the first female doctor in India and the first Indian woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, and Justice Anna Chandy, the first female judge in India. You will also be joining current leaders such as Ekta Kapoor of television fame, Indra Nooyi, former Chairwoman of Pepsi Co., and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, founder, Chairman and Managing Director of one of India’s leading pharmaceutical companies.
Some refer to those women who are among the first to accomplish something as “shattering the glass ceiling.” I don’t see those women as shattering or breaking anything. I see them as builders. I see them as trail blazers. I see them as path finders.
So, to you young students, I say be a builder, be a trail blazer, be a path finder. Be an entrepreneur. India and the world need you and all that you can be and do.
Finally, let me leave you with a thought from PM Indira Gandhi. She said,
There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.
I know that you young women will be part of that first group because of your going to school at La Martineire where the motto is Labore et constantia – labor and constancy.
Because of your labor and constancy, I am confident that you will do the work that is required in your journey for education, empowerment and entrepreneurship. The credit will follow.
As I stated in my opening comments: you are the future. You students can be change agent. Because of the education you are receiving, you will have the power as a citizen of India and as a global citizen, to help make India a kinder, just, tolerant and inclusive. If you do so, you can help shape a better future for India and the world. You need to stand firmly by rejecting the voices that seek to divide all of us. You should never stop struggling. You need to keep fighting the good fight as Hillary Clinton reminded us: Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.
Thanks for listening to me. Good luck and god bless you on your journey.