Alum Cliff Friedman Shares Life Lessons in Roundtable Series

Cliff Friedman, Dean Sreenivasan and Students

The 2016 Dean’s Roundtable events, hosted by Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan, have been a rousing success thus far, and on October 31 that streak continued when Cliff Friedman ('81, '83) had lunch and chatted with a small group of students about his time at the School of Engineering, his wide-ranging career, and life in general.

Friedman, who earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and master’s degree in electrophysics (a major that is no longer offered), began his career as an engineer with the Hazeltine Corporation before entering the world of finance. He has compiled an impressive CV that includes stints at such companies as Deutsche Bank, Bear Stearns, Universal Studios, NBC, and, most recently, the exceptionally successful private investment firm Raptor Group Holdings.

An engineering degree was valuable to him in each one of those ventures, he asserted, because engineering school, quite simply, teaches how to think and problem-solve.

Friedman — who has started a handful of his own companies along the way — is, indeed, a supreme problem-solver. He regaled students with jokes about surviving on three “C”s (Coca-Cola, candy, and a cot to rest on while pulling an all-nighter); tips on how to tell if a startup has a good chance of making it (stroll through the parking lot in the middle of the night and note the number of cars and bikes belonging to people dedicated enough to be working at that hour); and the fields he’s most excited about funding right now (biopharmaceuticals, artificial intelligence, and eSports).

The conversation flowed at a rapid-fire pace, but several solid pieces of advice stood out:

  • Don’t be afraid of change!
    Friedman’s career path has taken him to a wide variety of seemingly disparate companies, but at each one, he says, he learned something that could be used at the next.  Leverage what you’ve done before, he explained, and you’ll always have a competitive edge. 
  • If you are starting a new venture, find a trusted partner.
    If you are a skilled engineer but know nothing of business, find someone who does, Friedman advised. “You have the advantage of having NYU’s business school close by,” he told students. “And even if you don’t know anyone, a good venture capitalist can match you up with a partner with complementary strengths.”
  • Think carefully about whether you’re most suited to join a large company or a start-up.
    Joining a big firm can serve almost like graduate or post-graduate school, Friedman said, because of the amount you’ll learn. If you don’t mind risk and decide to choose the start-up route, make sure it’s well-funded.
  • Be all in — 24/7.
    Give any venture your best shot — even if it means sleeping on a cot and subsisting on candy and Coca-Cola.
  • If a venture happens to fail, pick yourself up and move on to the next thing.
    Because if you can’t bet on yourself, as Friedman asked his young audience, who can you bet on?
  • Strive to be the dumbest person in the room.
    Friedman explained that when you surround yourself with the smartest people possible, you’re in a position to learn from those around you and grow.

The lucky students who got to meet Friedman certainly did some learning and growing in the space of a single Roundtable luncheon.