Taking Risks Pays Off for Enterpreneur Alum

Sometimes it takes an engineer's mind to get ahead in business. At least that's the way it has worked for Mahfuz Ahmed, BS Electrical Engineering '93, founder, chair, and CEO of Digital Intelligence Systems LLC (DISYS).
"Nowadays, agile methodology is very popular, but we used to do that 25 years ago at Mason," Ahmed says. "You try something, you look at the results, and then you go back and have an iterative process to make it better. That's what we use in our business right now."
It's a process that seems to be working quite well. DISYS, an information technology (IT) staffing and services company, has 21 U.S.-based offices and six international locations, and has averaged a growth rate of more than 30 percent per year. DYSIS' client list is an impressive who's-who that spans the fields of health care, oil and gas, financial services, telecommunications and transportation, among others.
The company's story of extraordinary growth earned Ahmed top honors as the 2013 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year last summer. It's a nice honor, he says, but he keeps in mind that awards are for work already done. "[The awards] are looking back, but we are always looking forward," he says.
In June, Ahmed was appointed to George Mason University's Board of Visitors by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D-Va. His appointment began on July 1, and his term runs four years.
DISYS' growth has been driven by Ahmed's willingness to take risks. The first risk was to leave his native Bangladesh to attend college in the United States. It was a move encouraged by the grandfather who raised him and wanted him to receive a good education. Ahmed landed in Northern Virginia to live with an uncle and attend Mason. He worked his way through school, holding several campus jobs, from working in the dining hall to the Psychology and IT departments. "Those are the things that got me ready for real work life," he says.
The next big risk was putting his all into the idea that became DISYS. It started in 1994 as a side project with a couple of friends, something he did outside of his day job at ExxonMobil. Sometimes, it meant putting in 16 hours a day—as well as reinvesting every dime the company made. "We bootstrapped it," he says. "For the first two years, our revenue was $500."
In 2000, the business had grown enough to merge with another company. By 2005, DISYS was ready to expand nationally, followed by a global expansion in 2008. In 2010, Ahmed bought out his partners and took control of the company.
"It's all about perseverance," Ahmed says. "A lot of times, you try to skip steps one through 10 because you want to get to 11. It's best that you follow those steps. It builds a better foundation."
Ahmed says he is excited to now be in a position to give back to his alma mater, which he credits with giving him the tools to succeed. Last year, he joined the George Mason University Foundation Board of Trustees, and he hopes for DISYS to start an internship program for Mason students, similar to one already in place with James Madison University. Ahmed, also a Harvard Business School graduate, cites continuing education as critical to his success. "The training starts at good universities like Mason," he says.
Meanwhile, Ahmed is on to the next risk: to push DISYS to be a billion-dollar company by 2017.
"[Immigrants] almost have it in our DNA to take risks," he says. "We have started from zero, what else can go wrong? I think Mason has a big confluence of those kinds of individuals."
This article appeared in a slightly different form in the Spring 2014 Mason Spirit.
Write to Colleen Kearney Rich at ckearney@gmu.edu