How Marc Friedman helps empower youth in New York and around the world

Marc Friedman

Marc Friedman

By Tina Irgang

As the COO of nonprofit buildOn, which helps high school students find purpose and builds schools around the world, Marc Friedman spends most of his time fundraising. But that doesn’t mean he has lost touch with the human side of the business. In the following interview, Friedman shares the successes he has witnessed over the past two decades.

What got you interested in working with high school kids?

Friedman: When I was in high school, my mother was very involved in nonprofit work and instilled in me the importance of social responsibility. That’s where it started for me.

You’ve been with buildOn since its inception in 1991. What was your strategy for establishing buildOn’s reputation and raising funds back then?

Friedman: I was a volunteer back in 1991 when the organization was founded by Jim Ziolkowski, and we used a network of friends and family to get some initial funds. They came through bake sales and a small event at a bar where Jim showed slides from a trip to Nepal as a vision that he had created to start the organization. … Through connections that Jim had, we did receive a gift from GE. That was one of our startup gifts.

How do you fundraise these days?

Friedman: Our fundraising comes from four different sources — individual giving, corporations, foundations and social events. We have a team of 12 people that go out to individuals to try and connect them, specifically to the program work that we’re doing, whether it’s in some of the cities we work in like the Bronx, Detroit or Chicago; and then also, individuals literally go to the countries we’re working in and build schools. … People can either fundraise or donate the amount that you need to build the school, and then they go to the village and live there for a week and break ground on the school that they’re sponsoring. It’s a life-changing experience for them and their families. Companies use that as a recruiting tool, whether it’s GE or Deutsche Bank or British Airways, just to name a few.

What’s your favorite success story involving a buildOn student?

Friedman: I have a favorite story about one of our students, Junior de la Cruz. Junior is from the Dominican Republic. He came to the U.S. not speaking any English and was thrown into a big high school in the South Bronx and had to figure out his way. His parents were still in the DR; he was living with his sister. So he had to master learning English and at the same time living in a tough environment, the South Bronx. So he found buildOn and that became his home, his family. He started doing service work as a freshman. He stayed on and as a senior, was president of the buildOn program [at his school]. Then he went to college at the University of Bridgeport, where he started a buildOn chapter. This just really became a part of who he is. I watched him grow up and kept in touch with him through his four years at the college, and the chapter thrived there. Then he graduated last June, and he tells me that because of his involvement with buildOn, he was motivated to go into social work. … He could have joined a gang, but he chose buildOn, and look where he is now — he’s helping other people.

Working with disadvantaged youth on a regular basis can take a toll. How do you ensure you don’t bring that stress home with you?

Friedman: I can’t say I don’t take it home with me. I’m concerned about the buildOn youth that are part of our program. We call it the buildOn family. … I work out six days a week, whether it’s riding a bike or yoga or lifting weights. I’m very involved with my synagogue, so my spiritual side has definitely grown over the years. I think that’s a really important part of the balance in my life. Then I have my dog Lucy. … I rescued her when she was 2. She’s 4-and-a-half now and I love hanging out with her.

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made, either personally or professionally?

Friedman: I’ll say the best decision I ever made was coming to buildOn. I was in the corporate world and was doing well financially, but I knew where I wanted to go, and I didn’t have the courage at the very beginning to get there, to leave my corporate job and come to buildOn. But there’s no question that I look back 24 years later, and the opportunity that I have to be a part of this organization and be a part of this amazing group of people, and see people like Junior who are benefiting and now are empowering others, how did that happen to me? I’m just really blessed and fortunate that I’m here. There’s no question that was the best decision I’ve made.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email