With just $500 and one employee (himself) he opens a firm in Washington DC in 1994. In next 13 years, his information technology firm QSS becomes a company of several thousand employees and several hundred million dollars. He is Frank Islam – a reputed entrepreneur and renowned philanthropist of America. Born in a dusty village of Azamgarh town of Uttar Pradesh in 1953, Frank is proud to be son of India and wants to pay back to his native country and town also.
Sitting in a boardroom of 5-star Shangri-La hotel here in India’s national capital, Frank – who carried Fakhrul as his first name before going to America as a student decades ago, but he still carries that name though as initial in the middle of his full name (Frank F. Islam), talks about his success saga from Azamgarh to Aligarh to America. He is a story of inspiration for his native countrymen and also for the people of his native town Azamgarh.
Telling about his success saga, Frank says: “I always say, from the dusty streets of Azamgarh to Aligarh to America, I crossed the ocean to realize and to achieve and to attain the American dream. So I was born in Azamgarh, and after that I went to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) which is a great institution – an institution that inspired me, an institution that was built by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, an institution that has been a part, an indispensable part, of my life, my story, my journey, and my destiny. I left AMU at a very young age to go to University of Colorado in Boulder. I graduated from there. I worked for a couple of Information Technology companies. I always had this desire and dream that I want to become an entrepreneur, I want to be a business owner. So I became an entrepreneur.”
When he set up his first business in 1994 he was not at good time of his life.
“I started my business in 1994 and those were dark and desperate days of my life. I was with only $500 that I invested into this company. With no insurance, no place to go, but I thought there was a future. Otherwise I would’ve never started. So I was willing to take the risk. And I always believed in taking a risk. I always believed that you have to confront uncertainty with optimism, ingenuity and creativity. And starting a business is about taking a risk. With the hard work and initiative, and with my staff, I was able to grow my company from one employee to several thousand employees in 13 years, and also several hundred million dollars. It is a true American success story.”
Frank sold the company in 2007 for several hundred million dollars. Now he wanted to give back to America – the country which provided him opportunities of success.
“So I created a foundation to do that. And I was always reminded and guided by the phrase, as President John F. Kennedy said many times, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” So my foundation helps a lot of students who have financial hardship to go to school.”
Campaigning for Barack Obama
Frank also wanted to contribute in the politics of the country, and so he joined the team of Barack Obama.
“After I created the foundation, I started working with President Obama’s campaign as a person who was involved in the national finance campaign, and I got involved into politics. Politics has designed the landscape of America. This is how the capitalism grows as democracy flourishes. And this is how you have a voice. And those voices that should be heard, and therefore you have a seat on the table, which is very important,” says Frank adding that this phase of his life was like making an impossible possible – a person from humble background in a small town of Azamgarh walking along with US President Barack Obama.
“And if someone is listening to me and I will tell them that ‘you need to aim high, you need to work hard, [and] you pursue your dream. I came from a very middle class and humble beginning from Azamgarh as a Muslim family. And I see the young people looking at me and say ‘can they make it?’ Yes. You can make impossible as a possible, you can make irrelevant as a relevant, you can make unacceptable as acceptable.”
Challenges before Muslim youths in India
Talking about Muslim youths in India, he says the Muslim youth must get good education, become an entrepreneur and give back to their community and their country.
“I know that the young Muslim generation confront hostility and open prejudice because who they are. They see a dark and desperate world. They share a city but not a community. They share a common dwelling but not in a common effort. They share a common fear. But all of us in this country, Hindus and Muslims or anyone, or any other what I consider a religion or race, we live together in a peace and harmony for a thousand years; we should set aside our differences to work for shared goal, shared responsibility and shared sacrifices. So I told the Muslim youth, all of them, get an education, become an entrepreneur, give back to your community and your country, and be inspired by my story.”
Frank stresses education and terms it a powerful equalizer that uplifts the people’s soul and gives them dignity and respect.
“If I have to give them (Muslim youth) advice, I’d say get a good education. I know poverty drains the institution and it crushes the hope of the people. But education is a powerful equalizer that uplifts the people’s soul and gives them dignity and respect. Education creates wealth, education creates prosperity. In addition to that, as President Obama said, “education will be the currency of the 21st century.” And education, what I consider, frees the human mind from the shackles of ignorance.”
Franks’ education initiative in India
Frank has launched some education project in Azamgarh, but he lacks people who could help him fulfill his dream.
“I established a small school in the memory of my mother. I always cherish and nurture my family. My family’s finest tradition is sharing and caring. What is best in me, I owe it to my parents. Unfortunately, the challenge that we faced here in India is somehow a very dysfunctional society. A lot of corruption is here. And people do not want to take the responsibility on their shoulders to build this institution. I’m building this institution for them, as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan built AMU. I’ve put the foundations. I’ve not been able to build it because of the fact that… I have not found anybody who can manage it and who can say “I will take the responsibility,” who can give me the five year plan, how much it’s going to cost, what will take to sustain it, what it will take to maintain it. I’m still waiting for that. What I’d like to do is build a high-school, build a college. And hopefully, I have the wisdom and the wealth. And I’m willing to share, willing to give, willing to give back to our community, our country, who has given me so much.
Apart from that, Frank also gives money to the students who come from Azamgarh to study at AMU.
“I brought several students from AMU to universities in US. I was also able to give them a job so that they can get training. It is my fondest hope, it is my deepest desire, to help those who are so voiceless. It breaks my heart that the conditions they live in, and especially in Azamgarh and Aligarh. I want them to have the hope, the aspirations, the dreams.”
India needs many many Frank Islam
You got great success in the US. You contributed immensely in the development of the US. Don’t you think India now needs a Frank Islam?
“Well, India needs a many, many Frank Islam. Just not the one Frank Islam,” says Frank, 60. “I have contributed to America because it has provided me the opportunities. But I have not forgotten my homeland which is India and Aligarh and Azamgarh. I know it is difficult for a young Muslim youth because they do see a dark and desperate world, that ‘how they will be able to get education’ and also how to realize their dream. I want them to realize their dream. I will do everything possible to make that happen. So, for me I did invest in India. However, I did not do very well in investment in India because of many, many reasons.”
I love about India, because of the secularism and so on and so forth. India has also the democracy and freedom, the religious freedoms, so on and so forth. So my desire continues to be that I would like to do a lot more than what I have done so far. But I want somebody to take a charge.
I firmly believe that the US and India have a shared interest, and shared commitment. Because both value the democracy and diversity, and both want to work together. As a matter of fact our bilateral trade relationship between India and US has increased many, many times over what it used to be 5 or 10 years ago. Still not as big as China is, or Japan is, or even the European countries. I’d like to make sure that we continue to have that trade relationship.
I’d like to see that we also broaden and deepen our engagement with India, in terms of the education. I think the community colleges play a pivotal role in creating today’s students for tomorrow’s job. So when I come over here and I see there are not that many community colleges. Not everybody can go to colleges and learn the trade. Community colleges have two or three year college degrees. They can learn the tools and the trades and so that they can work. So that they can create the next generation and realize the American dream, so they have food on the table and also a roof on their head. That’s a one area, education, where I think we should work together.
The second area I think we should work together is energy. I think that… I firmly believe that we would like to become a provider for India in about two or three years, for your needs of all the energy.
Shouldn’t Frank Islam stay more at Azamgarh to inspire youth?
“I think you have made a very good point. And I should follow up what you just said to me that I stay there in Azamgarh and places like Aligarh to inspire people. But it is a daunting challenge. A challenge for me to live here because I do have a family, I do have a job back in US. And I have been away from this nation, from India, for a long, long time. So I still have a problem in terms of the environment, in terms of breathing the air, which is a very polluted air. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s the way it is and I have to accept it. So give me some time. As it goes by, as we continue on this path forward, as we continue on this journey maybe perhaps the next plateau in my journey would be to live there, to engage people. But I would hope that I can also help them from US. So they can come to US and see the world, see the experience. So they can be somebody as well.
A brief profile of Frank Islam:
Primary Education at Kaunra Gani village in Azamgarh
High School at National School, Pili Kothi, Varanasi
B.Sc. and M.Sc. (Mathematics) from Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh
B.Sc. and M.Sc. (Computer Science) from the University of Colorado, United States
Alone and with just $500 he founded QSS Group, an Information Technology company in 1994. By 2007, the company had several thousand employees and generated revenue of $300 million. He sold the company in several hundred million dollars in 2007.
A successful entrepreneur and investor based in Washington, DC, Frank Islam founded FI Investment Group LLC (FIIG), an investment firm in 2007. He is the Chairman/CEO of FIIG which focuses on providing growth capital to emerging companies, as well as managing specialized and branded funds.
Through QSS, Mr. Islam garnered multiple industry awards for leadership, entrepreneurship and excellence.
In 1999, he was recognized by the Ernst and Young as Maryland Entrepreneur of the Year. 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 is a well-known philanthropist whose private foundation supports educational, cultural and artistic causes worldwide. He participates in a number of non-profit organizations as a board member, such as TiE –DC and the Strathmore Center for the Arts (located in Montgomery County, Maryland), as well as chairing the State Democracy Foundation.
Frank Islam serves as a member of the International Advisory Council of the U.S. Institute of Peace. He also serves as a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) National Advisory Board. He also serves as a member of the Advisory committee of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Mr. Islam serves as a member of the Department of Commerce Industry Trade Advisory Committee (ITAC). He also serves as a member of the advisory board of the University of Maryland Smith School of business.
Frank Islam serves as a member at:
American University in the Emirates (AUE) of board of trustees
University of Technology, Malaysia (UTM) International Advisory Panel
George Mason University School of Management Dean’s Council
Maryland Governor’s International Advisory Council
School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) John Hopkins University Advisory Council
American University school of International services Dean’s Council
Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts
Frank Islam is co-author of two books “Renewing the American Dream” and “Working the Pivot Points.”
He is a contributor to several publications including Huffington Post, Indian Express, Economics Times and India Abroad.