“Yeah, I was right, 16,” said Frank Islam. He looked a little cross with himself, but recovered quickly, throwing in a bonus nugget: “And 22 bathrooms, all told.” Indian-born Islam moved into the 16-bed mansion with his wife, Debbie Driesman, just six months ago, and has had an unending stream of swooning gawkers and reporters since.
The Wall Street Journal dropped by the other day. CBS news wrote about it as the “pride of Potomac”, an upscale DC suburb home to celebrities such as the deposed royals of Iran.
Islam, 62, is not the richest American of Indian descent — Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla and investor Kanwal Rekhi may have better claims to that honour. But Islam is trying. His contributions to the Democratic Party earned him a few White House invitations, and a place on the board of the prestigious Kennedy Center in DC.
He made his money selling his IT company to Ross Perot, the millionaire whose presidential run in 1994 cost George H W Bush a second term, for $300 million in 2007. But it’s his mansion, which has put him among DC A-listers now. “They are inspired and impressed by the fact that a dark-skinned person like me could make it,” Islam said.
Manor on Norton road
Sprawled over 10 acres of land, Norton Manor, as Islam and Driesman call their home, is a neatly arranged smorgasbord of elements inspired by their travels around the world.
The reflection pool in front at the end of a long driveway lined with Corinthian columns, was inspired by Rashtrapati Bawan in New Delhi.
The dark green Koi fish pond in the back is all Japanese.
And the gazebo, just a few feet away, is straight out of the 1965 Julie Andrews classic Sound of Music.
That’s all Islam — he loved the movie.Like the White House, Norton Manor is divided into the East Wing, with its living quarters, and the West Wing, where Islam and Driesman have their offices.
A knockoff of the Oval Office’s Resolute Desk — remember John F Kennedy Jr crawling out of its middle? — is the centerpiece of Islam’s office.
“I picked it up from the same guy who made the replica for the Ronald Reagan library,” said Islam, easing himself into a swivel chair behind it for a photo.
The foyer tries to improve upon the original at the National Gallery of Arts in DC, with spiraling stairways. Driesman, in an aside to her husband, says it’s better.
During a tour of the house, Islam rattles off numbers from what has now become a well rehearsed script: over 100 chandeliers; carpets from India, Afghanistan, Nepal, bathroom tiles from Morocco.
And the bill: annual maintenance costs about a million, which includes everything from utilities such as power and water, gardens and 24X7 CCTV security.
So, how much is the property worth now? Islam looked eager to share, but Driesman stopped him. He has a bit more forthcoming in the next interview. $30 million? “More,” he said. $40 million? “More,” he added.
Aligarh to Potomac
Norton Manor is a long way from where Islam started. He was born in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. And was raised in Aligarh, where his family had relocated subsequently. An American professor visiting the famed Aligarh University — Wolfgang Thorn — offered to take Islam, who was all of 15, back with him.
To this day, however, Islam doesn’t know why Thron chose him and not any of the others. Aligarh was not short of smart and bright youngsters like him
Islam never got a chance to ask Thorn, who died in 2001
He stayed with the professor’s family in Boulder, Colorado joining his wife and their four sons.
Islam remains a practicing Muslim.
As a measure of his gratitude, in 2011, Islam instituted a fellowship in Thorn’s name at the University of Colorado, where the professor taught mathematics for many years.
Islam studied computer sciences for his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the same university. Soon he moved to Toronto, Canada, to work.
There he met Driesman, four years younger, also a computer science student.
In 1994, Islam bought a struggling IT company in Maryland, a state abutting the national capital, with $50,000 raised by mortgaging his house — “that was a lot of money then”. “I took the company up from where it had only one employee and turned it into one with 300,” Islam said. He was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the year in 1997.
Islam cashed out in 2007 and now runs an investment firm. He and Driesman contribute to many charities and plan to host fund-raisers for their favourites charities at their home.
And for vice-president Joe Biden, if he decides to run.