Board Spotlight: Q&A with Frank Islam
Frank Islam, a member of the Smith School Board of Advisors, is the chairman/CEO
of FI Investment Group LLC (FIIG), which focuses on providing growth capital to
emerging companies, and managing specialized and branded funds. In addition to his
volunteer work with the Smith School, Islam serves on the International Advisory
Council of the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Democratic National Committee (DNC)
National Advisory Board, the advisory committee of the Export-Import Bank of the
United States, and the Department of Commerce Industry Trade Advisory Committee
(ITAC). He says his life’s work has been focused on creating opportunities that
are “sustainable and uplifting for humanity.” Islam and his wife Debbie recently
created the Frank Islam and Debbie Driesman International MBA Scholarship.
Q: Tell us about your career journey. What are you most proud of?
A: I grew up in India and came to the U.S. to attend school at the University
of Colorado, where I earned a bachelors and masters degree in computer science.
Upon graduating, I moved to the East Coast, getting a job at a large government
contractor, CSC. After seven years, I moved to a small 8(a) government contractor
(STX), where I had the opportunity to work more closely with the executive management
of the company.
During my time at CSC and STX, I learned about the government contracting market
place, how to deliver business and how to sell business. At STX, I also had the
opportunity to learn how a small business runs, how to grow its business base and
how to leverage the government’s 8(a) program to start a business.
After 14 years at CSC and STX, I believed I had learned enough to start and run
a business. Also, after much discussion with my wife, I believed I was ready to
make the personal and financial sacrifice necessary to start a business. Ultimately,
starting a business takes more than just knowledge, it takes a willingness to work
hard and be singularly committed to the effort as well as a recognition that the
financial rewards for your efforts (if any) will come later rather than sooner.
In my case, I committed all my time to the new business and did not initially pay
In 1994, I founded QSS Group to build on the foundation I learned at CSC and
STX. Each year revenue, and ultimately profitability, grew and I was able to successfully
graduate from the 8(a) program and grow the business to $280 million in revenue,
at which point I sold it to Perot Systems in 2007. This then allowed me the financial
freedom to pursue my other interests, which had been basically deferred while I
was working and then building a business.
I am most proud of the creation of QSS, which ultimately provided great career
opportunities for thousands employees and for many provided a unique experience
and a significant financial reward. While this achievement required the help of
many and a reasonable amount of luck, it was inspiring to learn that it is possible
to turn an initial vision into a reality.
Q: What are some of the problems and challenges unique to working in your industry?
How has the industry changed over the past 25 years? What do you see as the greatest
challenges for the future? What advice can you offer students who want to work in
A: Although every industry has unique aspects, the primary challenges are the
same---be responsive to your customer’s needs and fairly support, motivate and compensate
your employees. However, as a government contractor, you need to recognize that
your “customer” is the U.S. government, an extremely large customer that is bound
by a significant amount of rules and operates based on the vagaries of the political
process. It requires patience and perseverance to navigate the selling and delivery
process, a willingness to accept the rules that govern business with the government
and an acceptance of the political process as it influences the “business” of each
Over the last 25 years, the government marketplace has become more competitive
as people recognize that there is a plethora of opportunities to sell to the government
and that the services required can be very interesting, unique and cutting edge.
Although spending has been reduced in the current environment, the government will
still spend a lot of money on contractors and certainly is not going to go “out
The biggest challenge within this industry will be adapting to the changing technological
needs of the government. Contractors need to be responsive to this need and resist
the temptation to continue to provide the same old services.
Students interested in working for a government contractor (or the government)
should remember that the government does many things, requiring skills from almost
every educational discipline. This provides an abundance of opportunities to do
whatever most interests you. I would encourage all students seek those opportunities,
because there is a high likelihood that they exist within the government’s operations.
Q: What did you find most valuable about your business school education? What
do you think business schools should be teaching today? If you were going back to
school today, what would you want to learn? If you were teaching, what would you
want to teach?
A: While I think most business schools do a good job of teaching the fundamental
aspects of business, I also think there are many examples of successful (and failed)
businesses in our history which can be examined as a model for testing these business
fundamentals. As an example, both Walmart and Apple are highly successful businesses
that provide vastly different products and face vastly different challenges. However,
there are several basic fundamentals that both businesses followed that supported
their success. Studying these type situations can help identify the challenges real
Regardless of whether I was attending school or teaching, I would like to link
the business fundamentals and theories of finance, marketing, operations and legal
to real existing businesses. I believe this would provide a fertile ground for examples
of these fundamentals and how they work. I believe that studying some of the similarities
and differences among firms could be an illuminating experience.
Q: You have made philanthropy a part of your life’s work. What (or who) inspired
you to do so?
A: It is important to recognize that most business and financial success is generally
not the result of a singular effort---that success depends on the support and help
of many different people and a good deal of luck. This is certainly true in my case
and I recognize that throughout my career journey I received a significant amount
of support and help and I was very lucky. As a result, as soon as I was able, I
decided to give back to the community to the extent I could. I have tried to support
a variety of causes in recognition of the varied support and help I received along
the way. I feel very fortunate to be in a position to do so.