Washington, DC (May 25, 2017) – Excerpts from the Atlas Corps Class 24 Welcome Event keynote address by Frank Islam. You can view additional media coverage at the Business Standard and on this Facebook Live video.
Thank you for that kind introduction.Thank you for your warm welcome. I would like to take this opportunity to thanks Scott Beale for his leadership and for inviting me to address you today. I have been invited to be with you Atlas Fellows today to share some thoughts regarding my journey and your journey. And, I will do so.
Before telling about my journey, though, let me begin by commending all of you Fellows for this part of your journey – for coming to the United States to serve in what has been called a reverse Peace Corps. The Peace Corps was created by President John F. Kennedy. He selected his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to establish and head it.
President Lyndon Johnson called upon Shriver to leave the Peace Corps and to establish the Office of Economic Opportunity in order to initiate a War on Poverty here in the United States. President Johnson created the Office of Economic Opportunity because he recognized that there were serious needs in America. Many needs and critical social issues still exist today and you Fellows are being given the opportunity to work on some of them as well as others around the globe.
As I think about it, you have the opportunity to be opportunity creators. That is a gift. Opportunity is a gift.
It is a gift that I have been granted many times in my own journey. Let me tell you a little bit about that journey and my opportunities.
My journey is comprised of three stages: Beginnings, Being and Becoming. I believe your journey will have those same three stages as well.
Beginnings is who and where we were early in our life. Being is who and where we are at this point in our life. Becoming is who and what we want to be in the future as we continue our journey through life’s passages.
My beginnings were in India. That was my birthplace and my home for the first fifteen years of my life.
Growing up in India had an enormous impact and influence on the person I am today. The strongest influences on me in India there were my parents and Aligarh Muslim University. My family was middle class and of the Muslim faith. My parents taught me to: Treat people the way that you want to be treated. Give dignity and respect to others. Work hard, aim high and pursue your dream. Do what you can to serve your country and your community. After graduating from high school, I went to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). My days at A.M.U. had a profound effect on me.
A.M.U. reinforced many of the social and spiritual lessons that I had learned from my parents. It gave me an excellent education. Most importantly, A.M.U. provided me with the basic building blocks to become a successful entrepreneur; to assume serious responsibilities; and, to become a passionate leader.
Those were my beginnings, let me move on to discuss the being stage – the place where I am now and what I am doing.
If you go to my website, frankislam.com, it says Frank Islam – entrepreneur, philanthropist, civic leader and thought leader. Those are my current areas of engagement, involvement and concentration – what I am able to do now because I came to the United States to pursue the American dream and achieved it. When I arrived in America at the young age of 15, I wasn’t quite sure how I would achieve my dream. But, I knew even then 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 had five phases:
- Getting a good education
- Taking a risk
- Becoming an entrepreneur
- Building a strong and talented team who shared my vision and values
- Broadening my horizon
I got my bachelors and masters degrees 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 started my business. Within 13 years, along with my management team, we took that firm from a workforce of 1 employee 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.
My journey was not a straight line. Indeed, there were numerous twists and turns. 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.
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. That sale of my company in 2007 also gave me time to reflect on my life, what I wanted to do in the future and where to invest my time now that I was no longer the owner of a large business. Who and what did I want to become in the next stage of my life’s journey.
Here is the critical point that I want to make as I move into this part of my discussion with you.
That is no matter where we are in our life’s journey each one of us – no matter what age – is in the process of being and becoming. We are who we are today and can shape who we will be tomorrow if we have a clear vision and commitment for what we want to achieve in the future and the plan in conjunction with passion, perseverance and patience to get there.
As I have said, at present I am an entrepreneur, philanthropist, civic leader and thought leader. I have plans that I have implemented and much more that I want do in each of those areas. Time does not permit me to share all of those plans. But, I will share some of what I am doing in the area of what I call purposeful philanthropy.
Purposeful philanthropy is making investments focused on pivot point areas that matter to the future of society. The returns on those investments are changes to problematic conditions and/or the creation of individuals who will become change agents to address those conditions. There is a distinction between purposeful philanthropy and charity. The focus in charity is to provide a handout. The focus in purposeful philanthropy is to provide a hand-up.
Here are three examples of my involvement in providing that hand-up through purposeful philanthropy. In February my wife Debbie and I went to India to dedicate the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex that our foundation contributed $2M to Aligarh Muslim University.
As I said at the dedication ceremony, we made that investment because of our firm belief that from that Management Complex will come future leaders who will make India and the world a better place.
A second and third investment that we have made recently are US Institute of Peace (USIP) and the Kennedy Center. We firmly believe in their missions. USIP is an organization devoted to nonviolent prevention and mitigation of conflict around the globe. USIP is engaged in making the transition to peaceful and stable democracy.
Kennedy Center is a temple of art. Art is a sweet spot in our family. Art plays a pivotal role in connecting, inspiring, engaging, and educating communities. Art transcends all boundary. It represents the very best of our humanity. President Kennedy was an advocate of the arts. He reminded us when he said: “Art nourishes the roots of our culture.”
Giving back has meant much more to me than reaping the financial resources.
Let me shift gears from my journey, and wrap-up by offering you some advice to you Atlas Corps Fellows as you move forward on your own journey and process of being and becoming. That advice is:
- Be a leader
- Be civically engaged
- Be an opportunity creator
Be a leader: Doing the right thing is the essence of leadership. There is an old American saying, managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing. Leaders do the right thing. That should be true in all fields – business, politics, religion, health care, and yes – even nonprofits. One problem is we have too many people in leadership positions that do not do the right thing. They are executives at the top of the organizational food chain whose sole purpose is to advance their own careers and earnings with little to no concern for the organization’s customers, employees, or the communities they should serve. The other problem is that many organizations have managers and not leaders. Because of what you are learning and doing through the Atlas Fellowship, you will be equipped to fill the leadership gap. You can do that by ensuring that your organization is a virtuous organization. The virtuous organization is one that has a strong moral compass and a compelling vision and mission that creates value for customers, employees, and the community.
Be Civically Engaged. Think beyond your own organization. When he was inaugurated on January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” You Atlas Fellows are already doing things for your country. So, let me broaden JFK’s request. Ask what more can you do for your country in conjunction with other organizations and other leaders. If you have answered that question, ask what you can do for other countries in collaboration with leaders from those countries.
Be an Opportunity Creator. Leaders create opportunities for themselves and others. Leaders create other leaders and opportunity creators. They have a multiplier effect by uniting others in a common cause. They do this by:
- Establishing a clear vision and building acceptance and commitment to it
- Exuding positive energy and optimism and creating a “can-do” culture
- Promoting teamwork and mutual accountability and responsibility among team-members
- Giving credit to others and taking the blame when something goes wrong
- Celebrating successes and treating failures as opportunities for improvement
Let me also add the following advice:
Be a lifelong learner
Be the best you can be
Exploit your fullest potentials
Do well but also do good
Invest in others by sharing and giving back
When you are successful provide ladders of opportunity for others to succeed
In closing, I understand that we have 17 countries represented among the fellows in this Atlas Corps Class. Based upon my review of the impressive backgrounds of you fellows, I am confident that each country and the world will be better off because of your participation in this fellowship. It has truly been a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with all of you Atlas Corps Fellows – or as I think of you, opportunity creators.
I hope my thoughts will be helpful and contribute to your being able to take full advantage of your fellowship opportunity and use it to create opportunities for others both during your time here and more importantly when you return to your homeland. I wish you all the best. Good luck and god speed to each of you on your journey.