Interview with founder Zia Islam.
By The American Bazaar Staff
TYSONS CORNER, VA: Zia Islam is the founder and CEO of Zantech IT Services, Inc., which provides enterprise information systems solutions to federal agencies and industry clients. Launched in 2007, the northern Virginia-based company’s revenue has grown from paltry $40,000 to more than $23 million.
Its numerous clients include several federal departments and agencies, among them, Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and NASA. Zantech has provided support and solutions to federal agencies in areas as wide-ranging as developing energy infrastructure in Afghanistan and operating the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite.
Under Islam’s leadership, Zantech has won a number of awards. It was recognized by Inc. 500 as #21 of the top 500 fastest growing companies in the United States. The firm was ranked #1 in the Government Services Industry, and #1 in the Washington DC area, and #1 in the South Asian-Run companies. Other accolades it received include the 2013 GOVstar Award for best in Government Contracting Business, the 2013 FAST 50 by Washington Technology, the 2013 50 Fastest Growing Companies by Washington Business Journal, the 2013 and 2014 Washington SmartCEO Future 50 Award, the 2012-2013 Fantastic 50 by Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the 2012 -2013 SmartCEO Smart100 Best Run Companies, 50 Powerful US/International Business Executives Award through Minority Enterprise Advocate magazine, and the 2012 Best Business of the year award by Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce.
Born in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, Islam came to the United States in the early 1990s, after earning an M.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Aligarh Muslim University and a brief teaching stint at a Saudi university. Following his master’s in systems engineering at Ohio University, Islam joined General Motors, where he worked for 14 years.
In an exclusive interview with The American Bazaar, the Ashburn, VA, resident speaks about his entrepreneurial journey, Zantech’s future and federal contracting space, among other issues. Here are the excerpts:
What are the core competencies of Zantech?
Zantech is a provider of cutting edge technology solutions for federal government customers. At the moment, we provide diversified services to a number of departments and agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, State, Veterans Affairs, and Education, the Army, the Air Force, and NASA. We also provide support to DoD for the development of energy infrastructure in Afghanistan. We do science, engineer and IT support for NASA.
As a technology company that is operating in the federal government space, what are some of the biggest challenges Zantech has faced to date?
Zantech has overcome some very challenging times. I launched the company just before the Great Recession devastated the American economy. We had to re-engineer ourselves to accommodate the changing landscape. If I started with the idea of leveraging my commercial IT experience and developing solutions to the federal government’s requirements, once the recession hit, we had to adopt a more opportunistic approach. One thing those dark days taught me was every challenge is a great opportunity.
An ongoing challenge is competing and growing in a very competitive market. It is not easy for a small company like Zantech to bid for large contracts because there is an inherent bias in the market that “the bigger is always the better.”
In the long run, my goal for Zantech is to grow it into a large company with a diversified business base. I would like to grow Zantech exponentially. Both in the long and short runs, we are focusing on continuing to provide our clients compelling technical solutions at a very competitive price. We are also very focused on innovating.
How important is it for mid-size companies like Zantech to continuously innovate?
One cannot overstate the importance of innovation in the information technology field in general. You are competing with the Boeings and Apples of the world, who spend tens of billions of dollars in R&D. We need to be on a permanent innovation and growth trajectory to offset the general procurement bias in favor of big companies.
You began your profession career in the United States in Detroit, with General Motors. Tell us about your GM days…
I joined GM’s Kansas City plant in 1994, just before graduating in systems engineering from Ohio University. My first assignment was working on the re-launch of the 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix. My 14-year tenure at the company was very rewarding and fulfilling professionally and personally. Leading a group of designers that designed the C6 model of Corvette was one of the most memorable assignments I had at GM. Designing a car is a tremendously difficult and disciplined process. A car is something that is very functional, but we have to put a premium on safety, cost-efficiency and superior performance. It was gratifying to earn the Design for Six Sigma “Black Belt Award” for the Corvette design.
While you are at GM, the entrepreneurial bug bit you! But your first choice was to the hotel industry…
That’s true. While I was still at GM, I had taken a serious look at the hotel industry. But after carefully considering it, I realized that for someone of my background and temperament, it’s not a perfect fit.
How difficult a transition was the transition to become an entrepreneur?
The transition wasn’t very smooth. Of course, leaving GM and moving to Washington wasn’t an easy decision. But I had a one-year goal and a contingency plan. I had decided that if I couldn’t make it work within one year, I would move to a different direction. But I would give everything during this period.
What advice would you give to those who want to enter the federal government contracting business?
First and foremost, make sure that it is what you want to pursue; that you have a genuine interest in competing in the federal contracting space; and that you have the wherewithal to succeed there. You have to be in it for the long haul. It is a very competitive field and quality matters. Because you are competing with the likes of Lockheed Martin and GDIT. But don’t be afraid to compete – what the success of small business enterprises like Zantech proves is if you are daring and innovative, you will succeed. Finally, in the federal contracting space, you are bound by a lot of regulations and oversight. The federal government has a very disciplined procurement process. The process is very important, so is accountability. And rightly so.
Although the government does a lot to reach targeted audiences, important consumer information, like health related for example, and product recalls in the industry especially, is yet to be effectively sent across mobile devices. Is that feasible in the near future?
It’s an accepted fact, not just in the federal space but everywhere, that mobile devices are the future. The federal government is also moving toward that direction. I cannot speak about areas such as healthcare, where we have not entered until now. But wherever we have, we have done work in the mobile space. For instance, we worked on a project to set up a mobile application for the Army. The app allows the soldiers on the ground to take the training using their mobile devices. Using the app, these soldiers, who are defending our country, can enter the information online and check their training status.
Cyber crime is on the rise worldwide. Is the battle getting harder against hackers?
You are spot on. The number of cyber crime is increasing every year. The United States can be attacked by someone sitting with a computer in another corner of the world. But no one is more focused on fighting the cyber crimes than the federal government. I can say with great confidence that we are ahead of the curve on that battle front.
There is fierce debate on the issue of local talent versus importing it. Does the US have enough talent to fill all the high tech jobs available, or is it necessary to get workers from overseas, like on H-1B and L1 visas?
I understand that it is a very political issue. Blue chip American tech companies are the biggest advocates of H-1B and L1 visas. More than the shortages, they want to be able to hire the best talents from anywhere in the world. From a business standpoint, one can understand that and agree with that. But in the domain where we operate, we don’t hire H-1B employees. There are a lot of security clearances that are required and only US nationals can be hired.
The Obama administration has been conservative when it comes to outsourcing, limiting the federal contracts to within the country. Is that protectionism, or you think the economy will improve if it were to open up?
I think limiting federal contracts to within the country was the right decision. By definition, most federal contracts are sensitive. Getting clearances for foreign employees is not that practical, as I mentioned earlier. You talked about an increase in cyber crime. When you ship federal contracts abroad, it also becomes a security nightmare. It is a question of national security—not of protectionism. Speaking of protectionism, the United States has one of the least protectionist economies.