Cliff Friedman Speaks at Innovation and Technology Forum

Students buzzed with energy last Monday as they filed into Pfizer Auditorium for the second Innovation and Technology Forum guest lecture of the semester featuring Cliff Friedman, one of the school’s most successful alumni. 

Friedman began his career as an engineer with Hazeltine Corporation after earning his BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and MS in Electrophysics in just six years at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), but he went on to an extraordinary career in business and investing.

As a beginning engineer, Friedman said, “I knew nothing about business. I was the pure, geeky guy.” He has reached his current level of success, he told the students, because he has repeatedly leveraged the skills and relationships gained in each stage of his career to make the leap to the next: “I had to leave a lot of fears behind. Using my brain and a set of relationships, I was an investor in the first internet wave that hit us back in the 2000 time frame.”

Since then, he has worked as a research analyst, advisor, director, and chairman to numerous companies in private equity, venture capital, investment, financial, technological, and media fields. He was a Senior Vice President at Universal Studios and a Vice President of Strategic Development at NBC, and he is currently Managing Director of Highbridge Principal Strategies.

“Nothing is a straight line,” Friedman said, discussing his systems-approach to building and investing in companies, and his view of major companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Apple as ecosystems. “The difference between success and failure is being able to bring it all together. You have to bring together creativity and engineering, marry that with business, and be able to articulate it clearly and simply.”

The Forum ended with a Q&A session, giving the first-year NYU-Poly students the opportunity to seek advice from Friedman. 

Asked about the value of his engineering education in a career that currently involves no direct work in that field, Friedman was adamant that studying engineering, computer science, and electrophysics was the foundation of his entire career. “I could not be where I am today without those six years,” he said. 

“But when was the last time you actually used those skills?” another student persisted. 

“You sound like my father,” Friedman said, smiling.  “He said, ‘You spent all this time to become an electrical engineer, and you can’t fix the TV set.’ But what I can do now is this: throw it out and buy a new one.” Laughter rippled through the auditorium. “But seriously,” Friedman said, “I use [my engineering knowledge] every day to understand how things work.”

Many students were curious about Friedman’s intense schedule. What does his average day look like? How much does he sleep? Does he ever get a vacation? “I get up at 5:00 a.m. and I’m usually done around 11:00 p.m.,” Friedman said. “I sleep four hours a night. I travel all over the world for work, and every day is a vacation because I love what I do. That’s the thing: don’t compromise, and do what you love.”

The Forum’s allotted hour was almost up. Soon, Friedman would be given the 2012 NYU-Poly Spirit of Innovation Award, pose for a photograph with Professor David Lefer and President Jerry Hultin, and students would leave the auditorium on their way to lunch or their next class. 

But in the back of the auditorium, one last hand waved. “Do you have any resources that you recommend for an engineering student trying to get more familiar with business?” this last student asked. 

“Yes,” said Friedman, smiling again. “It’s called NYU-Poly!”