In the twenty years before Zia Islam was born in India, his father cultivated a community of strong family values and a focus on education. Not only did he raise seven children on a very modest income, but he also invited relatives from neighboring areas to live with him and his immediate family so that they might have extra support as they pursued educations of their own. “For him, education was paramount,” Zia explains today. “And as his children, we considered it our birthright.”
Within six months of Zia’s birth, however, a sudden tragedy threatened his future. His father was struck by lightning, paralyzing him. “When I was a young child, I never played with him or spoke to him too much,” he recalls. “I saw him and knew he was my father, but he was always sick.” Yet that did not stop Zia from learning a great deal from the man who had done so much to build the bonds of the Islam family strong through loyalty and learning. “Although we did not speak much, he still impressed upon me the value and power of education,” Zia affirms. “He may have been paralyzed and sick, but I still learned a great deal from him.”
That knowledge, however, lay dormant for a time. “I was the youngest of seven children, and I knew that my siblings were devoted to their education and that it was important to their success, but I didn’t truly grasp the magnitude and meaning of that,” Zia recalls. “For a long time, I was just a regular student. I did not realize that, without education, I had no means of surviving.”
That would change dramatically, however. When Zia was ten, his father made a modest and temporary recovery, but by the time Zia turned 14, he passed away. “Suddenly, I knew,” Zia says, remembering his flash of insight. “And although my father was now gone, his lessons came back to me through my brothers.” One of his brothers, Frank, had left India for the United States when Zia was in first grade. In the wake of their father’s death, Frank gave his younger brother the support he critically needed. “He took care of me and guided me,” Zia says. “When my father died, I was in grade nine. I felt alone and lost. Frank would write to me and encourage me to focus and work hard. That’s when I woke up and everything started to change. That’s when I began a new pursuit of excellence.”
His father’s influence also echoed through another brother, Shah, who was studying to be a doctor when Zia was in high school. “He was a great role model. He lived in India and guided me every step of the way. He taught me the meaning of dedication and hard work.”
A few years later, shortly before Zia was to leave home to attend Aligarh University, his mother passed away. “My mother was not educated, but she was an extremely kind, caring, and loving person,” he remembers warmly. “She was a nurturing person. With her patience and understanding, she took care of not only my sick father and us, but also our entire extended family. She instilled in me the importance of family and the meaning of unconditional love.”
With both of his parents gone but their lessons and spirit still very much alive in their children, Zia’s focus intensified. “There was no other choice,” he says. “My parents had passed away, and my brother was in the US working hard. I realized that I had to make the firmest of commitments to work hard and focus myself.” Now the President and CEO of Zantech IT Services, Inc., an IT services provider that specializes in the federal government space, that commitment has carried him across borders and oceans, through bad times and good, redefining his visions of success and reconstructing his concept of a happy, fulfilling life.
After obtaining his undergraduate degree and a masters in mechanical engineering, unleashing his latent capacity for greatness and ranking at the top of his class, Zia looked west, to the United States. He explored scholarships to masters programs at American universities, and in the meantime took a position as a lecturer at King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia to save money. After saving a considerable sum, however, a one-two punch of unforeseen events of international scale threatened to throw him off track.
“By the beginning of 1991, the bank I had my savings in, Bank Commerce Credit International, was under intense scrutiny from international regulators for its complex and opaque operations, and was eventually forced to close,” he recounts. “At the same time, the Gulf War was escalating.”
With American forces bombarding Iraqi forces in occupied Kuwait a mere twenty miles from Zia’s university in Saudi Arabia, and his savings lost into a maelstrom of suits and counter-suits between BCCI and its creditors and regulators, he had no choice but to leave the country and return to India. There, although feeling blessed to have his life, he had to face the fact that he had lost everything else. But with the lessons and gifts of his parents still engraved in his heart, and his vision of following his brother to America, Zia would not be deterred.
Just as quickly as the doors of opportunity had closed on him when he lost his savings and his teaching position, new doors began to open. To his great wonder, he received a letter from the Ohio University informing him that he had been awarded a full scholarship to their master’s program in systems engineering. Frank loaned him six hundred dollars to fly to the U.S., and he worked as a TA while pursuing his degree.
In 1994, near completion of the program, Zia received a call from General Motors. With a strong recommendation from his academic adviser, who sang his praises as a hardworking, capable man who could handle anything, Zia joined GM at their Kansas City plant to work on a re-launch of the Pontiac Grand Prix. This was the beginning an illustrious career there that would last the next fourteen years.
During his tenure at GM, he earned the ASI Six Sigma “Black Belt Award” for Design and received the GM Chairman’s Honors award. He rose to Senior Project Manager, worked all over the U.S. and Canada, and frequently traveled to Germany and other international destinations. He worked evenings for a GM program that helped designers to become engineers. And all the while, true to the promise he had made to himself in India years before, he remained focused, always looking to what was next and always learning.
Zia’s boss, Phil Boulanger, was also his friend. “I was his right hand man from around 2004 up until my last year with GM in 2007,” Zia describes. “He was a very smart man, and I learned a lot from him. He was a go-getter kind of guy. He never left things for tomorrow. That was my philosophy too, and it worked out very well for us.”
Eventually, Phil retired, and though Zia had evolved into a dedicated company man, he found himself drawn toward a possibility he had imagined impossible before. Though he had achieved status and prestige at GM, he found himself wanting something more—he wanted to work for himself.
A few years earlier, Zia had considered investing in a hotel business, but was not ultimately convinced that it was worth his time and resources. That’s when Frank, who had worked in the federal contracting space, first began to help Zia explore the IT space in Washington D.C. “I had a desire to be an entrepreneur, but I wasn’t sure,” Zia explains. “I had a dream, and with Franks’ help, I began to see the outlines of real possibility take shape.”
He began discussing the idea with his wife, whom he had met in Canada. She supported his desire to explore the idea and urged him to think it through carefully, lending some color to the rough outline their future was beginning to acquire.
Zia spent the next few weeks speaking to friends and family and incubated his ideas, but his true ‘aha’ moment arrived suddenly one early morning at 2 AM. He sat upright in bed and then woke his wife, telling her that he finally had the whole idea in his head and was ready to make it a reality. “I asked her to write my plan with me,” Zia recalls fondly. “She’s a good writer and a great communicator. She could see my excitement, and thus, at 2 o’clock in the morning, we started to write my business plan.”
This dream was built on much more than a desire to further his own fortune. “At the forefront of my mind was that if I could have a successful business, I would be able to help others,” Zia explains. “Business is not just about making money. It’s about making a difference in the lives of others. To me, that would be the true test of my success—whether my business truly took care of its employees and clients, always acting with their best interest at heart.”
The next week, Zia met with his brother, and his plan began to unfold rapidly. He worked out a plan with his wife to travel to Virginia, where he would take a shot at his dream and open a business. If it didn’t work out within a year, he would regroup and head in a different direction, but for those twelve months, he would give it all he had. “It was a big risk to leave GM,” he acknowledges. “I knew I could start again somewhere else if my business failed, but it would be starting over. With my wife’s support and guidance, I got the strength I needed to take my chance.”
Today, five years into taking that chance, Zantech has sixty employees and revenues of $20 million. It provides IT support services like program management, enterprise architecture, and web development to an array of federal agencies that includes NASA, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense. The specific services Zantech provides are as vast and varied as its clientele. For NASA, they’re focusing on creating a website with animated and game-type solutions that inspire children to take an interest in math and science. For the Army, they provide a mobile application that allows troops on the ground to access online training resources. Whether they’re serving children domestically, adults stationed overseas, or someone in between, Zantech continues Zia’s personal pursuit of excellence in all that it does.
For all it has accomplished, Zantech is a proud recipient of numerous industry awards, including #1 in Inc. 500’s Government Services and Washington DC, and #21 in the nation in 2012. It has made several top 100 lists, including those of Diversity Business.com, SmartCEO’s Future 50 awards for 2012, and the Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce “Best Business of the Year Award”. But success has been far from easy. “Operating a business like ours is difficult,” Zia reflects. “It’s very time-consuming. It’s closer to your heart than to your mind. You cannot ignore any challenge. You must take full control and seek to understand every single aspect of it. It demands a lot of you, but it’s worth it.”
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Zia emphasizes the importance of pursuing a profession that resonates with one’s true passions and interests. “Whatever you do, do it from the inside,” encourages, echoing that life-changing moment when he stopped half-heartedly pursuing education because others wanted him to, and instead began wholeheartedly pursuing education because he, himself, wanted to. “Do it from the bottom of your heart. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going to be a musician or a scientist. Whatever you do, pursue excellence. Do it for yourself, and do it the best you can.”