After graduating from Columbia Law School and earning a master’s degree in business administration at Columbia Business School, Alexander Friedman was the last person in his class to be hired.
His dean pulled him aside to ask what was wrong and seemed mystified when Friedman explained that he’d applied to the White House Fellows program but hadn’t heard anything yet. Why, the dean asked, would he do that when he could make a huge amount of money in the business sector instead?
“I couldn’t believe the question, and I also couldn’t believe he was worried because I didn’t have a job yet,” said Friedman, who considered the opportunity to work and serve with top-ranking government officials to be worth the gamble. “It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” he said.
As it turns out, the dean had no cause for worry. Friedman, a fellow and an assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration, is now the global chief investment officer for UBS Wealth Management and UBS Wealth Management Americas, headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. He oversees investment strategy and policy for approximately $2 trillion in assets, one of the largest capital pools in the world. The former chief financial officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Friedman is a leading figure in both the financial services and philanthropic worlds.
“I don’t mind taking personal risks,” said Friedman, who will present the 2014 Stump Entrepreneurship Lecture at Birmingham-Southern College Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in Bruno Great Hall. The lecture is free and open to the public. Friedman said he will discuss his experiences, including what’s worked, what hasn’t and lessons he’s learned, so that students and others in attendance can draw their own conclusions.
Friedman, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Princeton University and who has started a number of venture-based companies, is the fourth speaker in the lecture series, endowed by Jane and Kevin Stump, both graduates of Birmingham-Southern, with support from an existing fund created by Joseph S. Bruno.
Past lecturers include Fred Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx Corporation and Jeff Taylor, founder of Monster.com, one of the largest employment websites in the world. Last year, Bill Rancic, a real estate developer, television producer and motivational speaker, addressed the group. Rancic gained national attention in 2004 after winning the first season of the reality show The Apprentice and being hired by Donald Trump.
“We look for speakers who are going to motivate students to find their passion and to work hard and to go beyond the classroom,” said Dr. Sara Robicheaux, dean of the college’s business school. “Finding a career is not easy. You have to be agile in the workforce as you progress.”
Friedman, who has had diverse experiences throughout his career, illustrates that, Robicheaux said. “He’s not your traditional businessperson who’s had a career as an investment banker from age 22 up,” she said.
That’s no accident, Friedman said. Often, at the end of their lives, people can put their successes in one category, he said. Others, like himself, are more likely to be described as lifelong learners who were hungry for new experiences. Friedman has always tried to follow the advice he wishes someone had given him as a college student. “Forget about what other people think and do what you think is interesting and meaningful,” he said.
That’s what Friedman did when he left his job as an investment banker for Lazard to join the Gates Foundation. “I asked myself, ‘How many times will I get offered the opportunity to go to the biggest foundation in the world?’” he said. “This doesn’t come around twice.”
While there, Friedman created and managed the organization’s multibillion-dollar portfolio of program-related investments, the largest of its kind in philanthropy. He served on the Gates Foundation management committee during a time when the organization more than doubled in size.
When asked if he ever feels unprepared for the challenges he faces, Friedman answered with a laugh. “All the time,” he said. “Everyone thinks the worst thing in life is if you fail. But if you don’t try, it’s worse.”
That’s where another of his passions comes in handy. An avid climber, Friedman has conquered many of the world’s highest mountains and applies that same strategy to other areas of his life.
“When you’re coming up to a mountain from a distance, it looks huge, just huge,” he said. “When you get up to the base of it, though, all you see ahead of you is the first 20, 30 or 50 feet you’re going to climb. That makes it, to me, a bit more manageable.”
In addition to his presentation with the lecture series, Friedman will speak to several classes at Birmingham-Southern during his three days on campus and will meet with individual students, Robicheaux said.
Friedman said he was honored when Gen. Charles C. Krulak, president of Birmingham-Southern, invited him to visit the school. Friedman first met Krulak, a retired commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during his stint as a White House fellow. The two have kept in touch over the years.
“He has had as much of an impact on me as anyone in my life. I met him when I was 27, and I followed him around the Pentagon for a year,” Friedman said, adding that one of the most important things he learned was that “a moral compass matters more than anything.”
Friedman recalled how Krulak printed a quote on a card and gave it to the Marines in his command. “It said, ‘Do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons,’” Friedman recalled. “I’ve always tried to live up to that.”