An Early Calling

Marc Friedman uses his sales skills to help build schools in impoverished areas around the world.
Marc Friedman with children in Senegal
Marc Friedman, far left, during a trip last year to a village in Senegal with a group of students from Detroit, says he was inspired by the local residents and their passion to build a school with the assistance of buildOn. Since 1991, the nonprofit has built 1,100 schools in poor areas around the world.

There’s a mural covering most of one wall in the office of Marc Friedman, chief revenue officer of buildOn, an international nonprofit organization that runs youth service after-school programs at high schools in the United States, and also builds schools in developing countries. 

Detroit is spelled out in large letters on the mural, and there are images of seven students from the city — all members of the buildOn team of volunteers. For Friedman, 57, who grew up in West Bloomfield Township, the artwork is a comforting reminder of who he is and where he’s from.

“I love Detroit and I always have,” he says, “and it’s very much a part of who I am. I grew up in a neighborhood at the corner of Maple and Orchard Lake roads. When we moved out there it was still dirt roads and farmland — quite a bit different than what you see today. I lived in a true neighborhood, and I’m still friends with my next-door neighbors and the other people who lived on the same cul-de-sac where I grew up. It was a real family neighborhood and, thanks to social media, I’m still in touch with a lot of those people.”

Friedman has fond memories of family outings downtown to the Thanksgiving Day parade, attending Lions games at the old Tiger Stadium — “My dad had season tickets,” he says — and following the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals.

“I remember listening to the games on one of those little transistor radios with the ear bud,” Friedman recalls. “We snuck them into our classrooms because, back then, all the games were during the day.”

Friedman’s father was a dentist and his mother was the longtime development director at Detroit Public TV — which turned out to be a major source of inspiration for her son. “I was taught, through my mom, the importance of social responsibility and giving back to the community,” Friedman says. “She introduced me to fundraising, and I was exposed to the importance of meeting your fundraising goals by using various strategies to get there.

“In high school, I really caught the fundraising bug from helping her out. In those days they had the live TV auctions, and I would work … answering the phones and stuffing envelopes … for different campaigns she was leading. So that’s where it all started for me.”

Marc Friedman with Detroit students

After earning a business degree in 1982 from Western Michigan University, Friedman moved to the New York area and launched what looked to be a successful sales career in the private sector. “I had a really good job at a distributor of electrical products and I was making really good money,” he says, “but I was basically working for the bottom line and I knew that’s not where I wanted to be.”

In the late 1980s, Friedman became friends with Jim Ziolkowski, who was also disillusioned and unhappy with the corporate career he was pursuing. Ziolkowski couldn’t stop talking about an idea he had for a different kind of job — and life.

“He shared this vision that he had about starting a nonprofit,” Friedman says. “He wanted to work with high school students who believed in doing service work and needed an avenue to do it, and he also wanted there to be this wonderful school-building program that would provide access to education for millions of illiterate people around the world. I was fascinated by that, and was definitely interested in helping him out.”

The germ of the idea became buildOn, which Ziolkowski founded in 1991 when he decided to leave the corporate world behind. At the time, Friedman wasn’t quite ready to make that break. “I had a mortgage to pay and I was a little reluctant to give all that up for this unknown entity, and what was that going to do to my career?” he says. “So I’d work 60 hours a week at my job, and then another 10 to 15 hours a week on buildOn stuff, at nights and on the weekends.”

His weekly routine lasted six more years. “(Finally) I reached a tipping point where I couldn’t continue working in the private sector and be what I wanted to be for buildOn,” he says. “It was growing and I had to make a decision: Either I step away from buildOn, or just go for it and see what happens. In 1997, I finally got up the courage to leave my job, took a huge salary cut, changed my lifestyle, and was really much happier.”

Friedman became just the third employee of an organization that now has 225 workers around the world. In 25-plus years, buildOn youth have contributed over 1.9 million hours of service and have touched the lives of more than a million people living below the poverty line. 

Since its inception, more than 1,100 schools have been built in some of the poorest countries on the planet. More than 140,000 kids, parents, and grandparents attend buildOn schools every day. Domestically, buildOn’s service learning programs engage students in 40 high schools in six challenging urban areas, including Detroit, where 700 students have accumulated close to 300,000 service hours.

I have a passion for our mission and the belief in these kids, that they could change themselves and change the world. That passion, combined with my experience as a sales guy, has motivated me for 25 years. — Marc Friedman

“We run programs in six high schools and we’re growing our presence (in Detroit),” Friedman says. “So that’s a dream. Last February, I went to Senegal with a group of students from Detroit. I was inspired by their willingness to live in a village with no electricity or running water, and work so hard to build a school. They were resilient, hard-working, and committed to helping break the cycle of poverty by working alongside the community members to build the school.”

The students from Detroit, along with the others who are volunteering in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Bridgeport, Conn., are racking up some impressive statistics: 97 percent graduate from high school and 87 percent go on to college. It all adds up to a compelling pitch when Friedman is in fundraising mode. “Fundraising is similar to sales, where I started my career, and it’s part of my DNA,” he says. “I have a passion for our mission and the belief in these kids, that they could change themselves and change the world. That passion, combined with my experience as a sales guy, has motivated me for 25 years.”

The corporate headquarters for buildOn is in Stamford, Conn., but Friedman spends much of his time on the road, including in his hometown.

“I go back to Detroit maybe eight times a year,” he says. “I do a lot of work out of our office there. It’s at 200 Bagley St., with a view of Comerica Park and Ford Field. I was there recently, meeting with Lear Corp., Allied Financial, and the UAW. And General Motors is a big donor.”

There’s family, too. Freidman’s father still lives in the family home in West Bloomfield Township and his sister is just 10 minutes away. His mother passed away five years ago, but the lessons Friedman learned from her are embedded in his core, as is his commitment to the path she inspired him to choose.

“I look at this wall in my office,” he says, “with the name of the city and all these kids who are there, and (I think about) the way I was brought up by my parents, and I’m just very thankful about growing up where I did. There’s something different about it from other parts of the country or the world. I think a work ethic was instilled in me — (and a sense of) loyalty, and commitment, and responsibility — and that has helped me maintain the focus and be part of this mission that’s accomplished so much in 25 years.” 

Friedman pauses, reflecting on his life’s journey and where it all began. “I’m so happy for the city, and it’s so cool to see what’s happening there,” he says. “I’m sure that when I retire, I’ll find my way back to Detroit.”