WASHINGTON, May 12, 2016 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — On the 25th anniversary of its establishment, the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO) is proud to present its Founder, Robert (Bob) E. Friedman, a pioneer, innovator and philanthropist, the Founding Vision Award for his lifelong service to America, helping the country’s most economically vulnerable lift themselves from low-income instability to financial security, opportunity and wealth.
“We are honoring Robert Friedman for his lifetime commitment to helping others unlock the American dream,” said Connie Evans, AEO’s President and CEO. “He has dedicated his life to closing the wealth gap in America, in whatever form it expresses itself, from the racial wealth gap to the geographic and gender gap. He is an economic superhero for our times.”
Born in 1949, Mr. Friedman’s life is testimony to enterprise and service inherited. He is the fourth-generation grandson of Rosine Frauenthal and Simon Koshland, an entrepreneur who migrated to the United States in the 19th century from the village of Ichenhausen, Bavaria, emerging as one of San Francisco’s leading wool merchants. Mr. Friedman’s family members established Levi Strauss & Co., the jeans maker, into a global powerhouse in the 20th century, and Mr. Friedman transformed the opportunity into which he was born into a passion and mission to create economic opportunities for others into the 21st century.
Feminist author and icon Gloria Steinem, an admirer of Mr. Friedman’s, has said that “his innovations will continue to grow, and become as pivotal as Social Security or the GI Bill,” which provided sweeping retirement and veteran benefits to Americans.
As a boy in the 1950s, Mr. Friedman was inspired by his maternal grandfather, Dan Koshland Sr., former CEO at Levi Strauss and a leader who guided the company through the Great Depression, racial integration and social justice reform. Later, Mr. Friedman heard 20th century African-American poet Langston Hughes words, envisioning “the America that never was yet still must be,” and he envisaged creating opportunities for all Americans.
A graduate of Harvard College (1971) and Yale Law School (1977), Mr. Friedman worked for Jimmy Carter when he was governor of Georgia, and, in Atlanta, one day, he stood behind African-American domestic workers at a bank, watching them deposit change and small bills in Christmas Club accounts. He asked the teller what interest rate the bank paid. The teller told him, “There’s no interest paid. We do this as a service.” “That seemed incredibly unfair to me, and got me thinking harder about how to open economic opportunity,” he recalled.
In the nation’s capital, following Mr. Carter’s election as president, Mr. Friedman convened a meeting of economic and community leaders and, in 1979, at the age of 30, he founded the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) as a bold nonprofit that makes it possible for millions of people to achieve financial security and contribute to an opportunity economy. 37 years later, CFED is a leader in the asset-building field, scaling innovative practical solutions that empower low- and moderate- income people to build wealth; driving responsive policy change at all levels of government; and supporting the efforts of community leaders across the country to advance the economic opportunity for all. Today, he is Chairman Emeritus of the Board and General Counsel.
Borrowing on empowerment models from the women’s right movement, economic strategies he observed in Europe in 1984 on a fact-finding mission with colleagues and the lessons of authors, such as Michael Sherraden, in his seminal work, Assets and the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy, Mr. Friedman developed pilot programs aimed at turning welfare checks into pay checks. He pioneered new strategies in which low-income and middle-income Americans could save, build assets, invest, succeed as entrepreneurs and participate as contributors to the economy, not to mention as beneficiaries.
In 1991, Mr. Friedman founded the Association for Economic Opportunity (AEO), an umbrella group for 200 community organizations that support microenterprise businesses with four or less employees. A leader in innovative strategies for economic development, Mr. Friedman developed U.S. microenterprise, state and federal entrepreneurial policies, the savings and asset-building fields and savings programs for children.
Inside Philanthropy called him “the godfather of one of the most significant policy movements of recent decades.”
“I was born lucky, and have majored in it ever since,” he told the magazine.
In 1999, in the East Room of the White House, then-President Bill Clinton presented Mr. Friedman and CFED with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Microenterprise Development for “excellence in private support for microenterprise development.” In presenting the award, former President Clinton noted, “For two decades – through research, public advocacy and technical assistance to microenterprise organizations – the Corporation has fostered so much of the progress we see today….”
Based in San Francisco, Mr. Friedman is focused on economic development strategies that ensure an inclusive economy where children and adults have an opportunity to save, go to college, start a business, buy a home and build an economic future for themselves, their families and the country. He continues to try to bring excluded communities into the economic mainstream as entrepreneurs, savers, investors and skilled employees.
“The creation of the safety net during the twentieth century was a wonderful achievement,” said Mr. Friedman, “but the task of the twenty-first century is to create a ladder so that people can climb out of poverty. Eventually, every American and every citizen of the world will have a reasonable opportunity to go to college, start a business, buy and keep a home and create a viable economic future for themselves and their families.”
To that end, Mr. Friedman is on the board of non-profits that keep alive the legacy of his family’s philanthropy: Friedman Family Foundation, led by his inspirational mother, Phyllis Friedman; the Koshland Committee of the San Francisco Foundation, a Bay Area community development non-profit established by his grandfather, Dan Koshland Sr.; and the Butler Koshland Fellowships, a mentorship program named for his grandfather and his grandfather’s mentor and friend, Lewis Butler. He is also a former board member of Levi Strauss & Co.
Mr. Friedman also serves on the board of several community non-profits, including: the 1:1 Fund, a college savings program; Ecotrust, a conservation non-profit; Child and Youth Finance International, a youth finance education non-profit; the Rosenberg Foundation; and the National Fund for Enterprise Development. He is editor of Expanding the Opportunity to Produce: Revitalizing the American Economy Through New Enterprise Development (1981).
The author of The Safety Net as Ladder: Transfer Payments and Economic Development (1988), Mr. Friedman has even brought the movement he helped forge to verse, as a poet:
Kids who deserve more,
Entrepreneurs but for lack of a seed,
Skilled workers but for a path,
Social entrepreneurs, imagining better:
To all, an encouraging and gentle lift,
That rarest and most valuable of gifts.
About Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO)
The Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO) is the voice of innovation in microbusiness and microfinance in the United States. For 25 years, AEO and its more than 450 member/partner organizations have helped millions of entrepreneurs contribute to economic growth while supporting themselves, their families and their communities. AEO members and partners include a broad range of organizations that provide capital and services to assist underserved entrepreneurs in starting, stabilizing and expanding their businesses. Together, we are working to change the way that capital and services flow to underserved entrepreneurs so that they can create jobs and opportunities for all. Learn more about The Association for Enterprise Opportunity at http://www.aeoworks.org/