Frank Fakhrul Islam, the proud recipient of Martin Luther King Jr. Award for 2015, was recently in India as part of the official U.S. delegation accompanying President Barack Obama during his visit to attend the Republic Day. Popularly called Frank Islam, the Azamgarh-born multifaceted and dynamic personality Mr. Islam is an Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Author, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader. He takes all these roles in his stride, acknowledges them to be daunting and challenging, and manages them harmoniously and committedly.
Mr. Islam was born in 1953 in small Kaunra Gani village of Azamgarh town in Uttar Pradesh. He briefly studied in Azamgarh and Varanasi and then went to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) for studies from where he did B.Sc. and M.Sc. (Mathematics). Later, he left the AMU at quite young age and went to the United States to study at University of Colorado in Boulder from where he completed B.Sc. and M.Sc. (Computer Science). His love for his country and alma mater AMU has been so strong that he committed $2 million for a management school at the university during a luncheon meeting hosted in his honor by AMU Vice-Chancellor Lt Gen (retd) Zameerudin Shah. The school will be named ‘Frank and Debbie School of Management’ after Frank and his wife.
Mr. Islam currently heads the FI Investment Group, a private investment holding company that he established in 2007 after he sold his information technology firm, the QSS Group. He founded the QSS Group in 1994 and built it from 1 employee to more than 2,000 employees and revenues of approximately $300 million before its sale.
Presently, Mr. Islam devotes majority of his time to a wide variety of civic and philanthropic activities. He has been on numerous boards and advisory councils including Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2013 to 2019); Board of Directors, Strathmore Center for the Arts (2008 to 2012); and Member, Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts (2013 to present). His civic involvement includes those in Brookings Institution Council; Woodrow Wilson Center National Cabinet; International Advisory Council of the U.S. Institute of Peace (2009 to present); National Democratic Institute (NDI) Chairman’s Council (2013 to 2016); Maryland Governor International Advisory Council (2011 to present); Department of Commerce Industry Trade Advisory Committee (ITAC) (2010 to present); and Advisory Committee of the Export-Import Bank of the United States (2010 to 2011).
Frank Islam is a passionate educationist. He is keenly interested in higher education and has been assisting youths in pursuing their objectives. His involvement in higher education includes those in School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Johns Hopkins University Advisory Council (2013 to present); Member of the advisory board of the University of Maryland Smith School of Business (2009 to present); Member of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School Dean’s Advisory Council (2014 to present); George Mason University School of Management Dean’s Council (2012 to present); American University School of International Service Dean’s Council (2013 to present); University of Malaysia (UTM) International Advisory Panel (2012 to present); Board of Trustees of the American University in the Emirates (AUE) (2012 to present); Board of Trustees of the American University of Afghanistan; and Board of Trustees of Marymount University.
Mr. Islam is actively involved in philanthropy and business activities as well. He founded The Frank Islam & Debbie Driesman Charitable Foundation in 2007 and is its President. He is also on Board of Directors, Potomac Charities, Inc. and is its Founding Chairman since 2008. As an entrepreneur, Mr. Islam has served on the Board of Directors, The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), Washington, D.C. chapter (2007 to 2009). He is also Founding Member of Board of Maryland-India Business Roundtable and South Asia Center at Atlantic Council.
Frank Islam has established a reputation as a writer and thought leader over the past several years. He has authored two books: “Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again (2013)” and “Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage (2010)”. He is presently writing a third book with the working title: “Education: Creating and Connecting All the Dots”.
Being an avid writer, Mr. Islam regularly blogs for The Huffington Post and also writes occasional columns and articles for publications such as the Foreign Policy, the International Business Times and the Economic Times of India. He also hosts his own TV show “Washington Current Review” on MHz Networks and is called upon to speak frequently in a variety of business, education and non-profit venues.
Apart from receiving the prestigious Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award for International Service for 2015, Frank Islam has also been presented The Indus Entrepreneurs (Tie) Legends Award for 2014. He was an active participant in the information technology, aerospace engineering services, and systems integration business for more than twenty-five years. During his professional career, he garnered multiple industry awards for leadership, entrepreneurship and excellence. He was recognized by the Ernst and Young as Maryland Entrepreneur of the Year and the US Small Business Administration selected him as the Small Business Person of the Year of the Washington DC Metropolitan Area in 2001.
Frank Islam recently talked to Danish Ahmad Khan, Founder-Editor of India’s First Online Muslim Newspaper “IndianMuslimObserver.com” in an exclusive interview. He talked extensively on a wide range of issues. Here are the excerpts of the inspiring and motivational interview.
Q: Your personality is dynamic and multifaceted one. You are an Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader. These roles are in itself quite challenging and daunting. How do you manage to pursue these simultaneously?
Ans: Before I sold my 2,000 person company, the QSS Group in 2007, I was fairly much consumed by leading and managing my business. That sale liberated me and gave me time for more multi-faceted work and involvement. As an entrepreneur, I invest in businesses and oversee my portfolio. As a philanthropist, I do my homework and give to artistic, educational and cultural causes that I think will make a difference. As a civic leader, I sit on various boards and councils of policy bodies such as the United States Institute of Peace, the Woodrow Wilson International Center, the Brookings Institution and numerous universities. As a thought leader, I write books on issues important to the future of America and the world, blog for the Huffington Post and write occasional columns for Indian and international publications such as the Economic Times of India and the International Business Times and Amar Ujala.
Q: Your origins are from a humble village of Azamgarh district in Uttar Pradesh, India. Tell us something about your village and life in India. What prompted you to leave for the United States at such a young age?
Ans: I have not forgotten my humble roots. The boys and girls that I played with in Azamgarh taught me how to ride bike in hot summer sun and they taught me how to catch a kite in brown muddy waters filled with rice paddies.
I never lost my love of Azamgarh. This city has been my home. This city remains an inseparable part of my life, my story and my journey. I still cherish and nourish the fond memories of Azamgarh. This city has helped shape the lives of many generations. This city has inspired and influenced many generations.
Growing up in India had an enormous impact on the person I am today. It’s here that I learned lessons from my family, this country, my home city of Azamgarh, and Aligarh Muslim University.
I grew up in a middle-class and religious family. They shaped my beliefs and value systems. I will elaborate further on that in response to questions later in this interview.
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.
I love India because I was born there 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.
I treasure the City of Azamgarh – my home town. No matter where I am, the memory of Azamgarh lingers in mind. It is a beautiful city and a tolerant one. It is there that I learned about the richness of different religions and respect for other religions.
Last, but not least of course, is Aligarh Muslim University. My days at A.M.U. have had a profound effect on me. I still remember riding my bike from V.M. Hall all over campus. 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. The leaders of A.M.U. have shaped our history and our destiny. The principles of A.M.U have always guided me.
I left India when I was young to pursue the American dream. At that 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.
Q: Your journey as an entrepreneur is quite eventful. You made a small beginning with only $500 and yourself as the only employee. Over the years you rose to dizzying heights and won several awards. Please tell more about your fabulous entrepreneurial journey.
Ans: As I said, my entrepreneurial journey began when I left India to pursue the American dream.
I 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
• 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 a number of 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 and to get involved in other areas that I believe will make a difference in the United States and the world.
Q: Being a Muslim, you have a love for philanthropy. You have been supporting educational, cultural and artistic causes worldwide. It is usually seen that whenever a person from humble beginnings becomes successful in life and makes wealth, the new-found status is only to be flaunted and is only for oneself. But, you have a very different philosophy — of humanism, philanthropy, civil rights, peace building and much more. What inspires or motivate you to do these things selflessly?
Ans: I truly believe as John F. Kennedy said that “To whom much is given much is expected.” That belief comes from my family background and my faith.
I mentioned my family life earlier. 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.
These were core values established in me as a youth. They are guiding principles for me today. They are reinforced by my religious beliefs as a Muslim which I will talk about a bit later.
An old saying goes it is better to give than to receive. I know this is absolutely true because the gifts or assistance you give to help others is paid back a thousand-fold. By giving you, enable and empower others to give that is a great return on investment.
Q: As you know India is a diverse, multi-faith country. In recent years, it is being seen that fanaticism is growing and people becoming intolerant. Since, you are devoted to working for peace and recently received the prestigious Martin Luther King Award for 2015, what message do you have for the people of your great motherland India?
Ans: In my acceptance speech for the Martin Luther King award, I talked about “being doubly blessed to receive this honor because of the indelible connection between Dr. King and that other famous civil and human rights leader from my homeland of India, Mahatma Gandhi.”
As for a message, let me borrow from my acceptance remarks as well:
As Dr. King noted in a radio broadcast during a visit to India in 1954, “If this age is to survive it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that Gandhi so nobly illustrated in his life.”
Dr. King and Gandhi have been beacons to me in my personal life and charitable and philanthropic involvement. I have given to numerous causes to support humanitarian efforts and to advance the interests of the undeserved in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi told us that, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Dr. King advised us that, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
I have heard the words of Dr. King and Mr. Gandhi and am trying my best to “walk in the light” and to “be the change.” I know that is true for many others also.
It is a critically important that those who believe in non-violence mobilize. Because as the American novelist and civil rights activist, Marian Wright Edelman observed, “A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back – but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Wright’s statement of responsibility to carry forward the good work of King and Gandhi.
It is up to us. It is up to you. It is up to me.
But, I do not agree that these two great men are gone. They live on through each of us who are willing to pick up the cudgel of non-violence and use it as an instrument for peace and making the world a healthier and better place for all.
I am also equally grateful to receive this award as a Muslim American, at a time the Muslim faith is hijacked by those who practice radical Islam, which is not a religion but a cult of those who are alienated from society and carry violence and hatred in their hearts for those who are different from them. This is a sad and sorry perversion of the Muslim faith. My being given this award as a Muslim acknowledges the fact that the overwhelming and huge majority of Muslims are advocates for brotherhood and unity in a conflicted world.
Q: In recent times, it is being seen that handful of Muslim youths in India got attracted to ultra radical organizations like ISIS. Any comments? What message do you want to convey to Indian Muslims, particularly youth?
Ans: The growth of this sect or splinter group is perplexing to me. It has nothing to do with the Muslim religion that I know and understand.
Let me share some of my thoughts and messages to young Indian Muslim youths:
a. Be the best you can be
b. Exploit your fullest potentials
c. Get a good education
d. Stay true to you
e. Be something special to someone in particular
f. Be a lifelong learner
g. Never give up
h. Create your own legacy
i. Make it your own journey
j. Do well be also do good
k. Do not think anything is impossible
l. Provide ladders of opportunity for others to succeed
m. When you are successful invest in others by sharing and giving back
n. Dedicate yourselves to draw upon the values, ingenuity, decency, dignity, and spirit that have always defined the greatness of our community
Let me share, however, some thoughts of what I believe as a Muslim. Being a Muslim has taught me many things – but the most important is that the whole purpose of religion is to provide justice and a path to justice for all of us.
That includes animals and nature itself. According to the Holy Qur’an, God asked: “Who will take care of all of my Creation. The mountains said the task was too great; even the angels declined to take on the challenge. But then Man jumped up and said ‘We will take care’. So we made a contract with God to protect his Creation.”
I have learned as a Muslim to believe in the unity of all creation and that everything and everyone is a reflection of God on earth. Because of that I have also learned that there are just people and that just people do just things.
I treasure our faith – my faith. My faith firmly believes in equality, dignity, compassion, respect, tolerance, justice and peace for other faiths. My faith keeps me calm and provides me with a sense of optimism that gives me peace. With my personal peace, I can work with others of different faiths for peace.
Q: India is an emerging superpower. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be administering the country well and is undoubtedly a visionary. What role do you see India playing internationally?
Ans: If India continues on the current path that it is charting I believe that it is positioning itself to be one of the three great superpowers of the 21st century.
As a superpower, I think India should play the same roles in the future that I prescribed for the United States in a chapter titled “The World Matters” in my book, renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage. Those roles are:
* Land of opportunity
* Role model
* Economic nation-state
Let me just emphasize one of those roles in particular here and that is being a “land of opportunity.” It is no secret that India has many miles to go in order to become a land of opportunity for all – this is especially true when it comes to minorities and women.
In order to become the truly strong player it can be internationally India must become much stronger and fairer domestically. I am certain that you are familiar with the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 which disclosed a “development deficit” for minorities in many areas and resulted in the creation of an across the board program for the development of minorities in India.
A study released by the U.S India Policy Institute at the end of 2013 titled Six Years After Sachar: Review of Socially Inclusive Policies in India revealed the “development deficit” was being reduced for some – but that Muslims as a group remained tremendously disadvantaged.
This situation must be corrected in order for India to move to the forefront in the international arena.
Q: You are an advocate of strong U.S.-India ties and been working dedicatedly toward this. How do you see U.S.-India relations evolving in the future?
Ans: There are many areas in which U.S. relations will evolve. Being a business person though, the one that is near and dear to my heart and the one which should be front and center going forward is strengthening of the economic ties between these two great nation states.
In this regard, it is well documented that President Obama came to India to attend the Republic Day parade. What did not receive as much press was that business was high on the President’s agenda for his visit.
This is attested to by the fact that just hours before Obama became the first American president to be the chief guest at the parade, he addressed a roundtable of Indian and U.S. CEO’s at a U.S. CEO Summit.
In that meeting, he said, “[Even] as this visit is rich with symbolism, it’s also a visit of great substance.” He went on to assert, “We’re advancing the vision that I laid out on my last visit — India and the United States as true global partners. And a core element of this vision is greater trade, investment and economic partnership.”
I was privileged to be one of the executive participants in that roundtable at the invitation of the White House. The roundtable included among others, Obama, Modi, senior officials from the two countries and prominent CEOs from India and the United States.
The roundtable came up with more than a dozen key recommendations in areas such as infrastructure, trade, defense and intellectual property rights to strengthen the “Strategic Partnership” between the United States and India. These will be pursued through an ongoing Strategic and Commercial Dialogue.
During his first visit to India, President Obama said that India and the United States were “indispensable partners” with a “historic opportunity” to create a “defining partnership” for the 21st century. The results from this second visit bring us much closer to realizing that vision.
Q: What message do you want to give to the readers of Indian Muslim Observer and to the entire countrymen?
Ans: For everyone the message is simple. To borrow a phrase from a well-known American song, “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
India is a country with and a rich and storied history of accomplishments and is by far and away the largest democracy in the world. But progress over the past decade or so on all fronts has been slow and halting. Times are changing and India appears to be poised for exponential growth and has the potential to be a true leader in the world arena.
Let me direct my message for Indian Muslims to those who have experienced success in India and around the world.
It is straightforward as well. It comes from another well-known American song played as Bill Clinton accepted the Democrat nomination for President in 1992. That song was “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow.”
In thinking about that tomorrow, I remind those Muslims that the statistics on Muslims in poverty and without education in India remain far too high. I ask them: To not forget their heritage and roots. To look back and extend a hand and heart to their Muslim brothers and sisters who need assistance. To make a commitment to making things better for them.
By doing this, we can ensure that “we’ve only just begun” is not only true for India as a nation but for the Muslims residing there as well.
[Danish Ahmad Khan, a New Delhi-based Journalist and Founder-Editor of India’s First Online Muslim Newspaper “IndianMuslimObserver.com”, conducted the Interview with Frank Islam. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Mobile # +91-9990179721]