Born to a farmer in the pastoral calm of Azamgarh — a largely impoverished town in Uttar Pradesh — Frank Islam has come a long way to win the prestigious Martin Luther King Jr Award.
Today, Islam — spotted when he was just 15 and taken back to the US by a professor visiting the Aligarh Muslim University — is an eminent Indian-American entrepreneur and philanthropist. He received the award on Sunday in recognition of his contribution to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr through his efforts in international service and civil engagement.
“I feel doubly blessed to be given this honour because of the indelible connection between King and that other famous civil and human rights leader from my homeland of India, Mahatma Gandhi,” Islam said in his speech after the award was announced.
Islam could never ask professor Wolfgang Thorn, who died in 2001, why he chose the 15-year-old instead of other bright youngster from the university, but he ensured his mentor was never disappointed.
Islam studied computer sciences for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Colorado, where professor Thorn taught mathematics for many years.
In 1994, Islam bought a struggling IT company in Maryland, with $50,000 raised by mortgaging his house — “that was a lot of money then”, according to his interview with HT in March 2014. “I took the company up from where it had only one employee and turned it into one with 300,” Islam said.
He cashed out in 2007 and now runs an investment firm. He also serves on the International Advisory Committee of the US Institute of Peace. President Obama appointed him last year to the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center, a US-based leader in arts education.
The award, which carries the name of Martin Luther King Jr, an apostle of peace, is about building bridges between humanity.
Islam said both King and Gandhi "have been beacons to me in my personal life, and charitable and philanthropic involvement". Islam also said that the award was especially important to him because of its emphasis on "peace and non-violence".