Work hard. Anything is possible if you put forward the effort.
Invest in yourself. Get the skills that you will need to be successful and happy.
Be a good citizen. Contribute to the greater community. Give back where you can.
Do what you love to do. If you enjoy your chosen career, you will be successful.
Relate to people. Have empathy and be a “people person.”
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Phil Friedman. He was born and raised in the former Soviet Union. After spending 12 years in numerous positions in the electronics industry, he immigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York City. In addition to his degrees in Electrical Engineering, Economics and Finance from his native country, Mr. Friedman also studied Information Systems in the U.S.
In 1984, Mr. Friedman founded Computer Generated Solutions (CGS), a diversified IT solutions and services company providing software, consulting, systems integration, training and help desk support. Today, with close to 8,000 professionals and a global presence spanning North America, South America, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia, CGS maintains a leadership position delivering end-to-end, award-winning solutions in 48 countries around the globe.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in the former Soviet Union, the son of Holocaust survivors. My mother was a survivor of Auschwitz and my father survived 3 1/2 years of hard labor in the Russian Gulag. This family history had a profound effect on my life. Schooled in the Soviet Union, I had earned degrees in electrical engineering, economics and finance. Starting my career at age of 17, I went to work for a company that produced electronic equipment for submarines and military airplanes and by the age of 20, I was managing about 400 employees.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
My main reason for seeking immigration was to pursue my religious freedom and reconnect with my parents and brother who had already settled in Brooklyn a year earlier. Our journey in 1976, was made partially possible by the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974, which was meant to support Russian Jews who were displaced during the war. It allowed them to be reunited with their families across the globe. The Soviet Union, which at the time was struggling to feed its population due to poor crop growth, would receive grain from the U.S. in exchange for 70,000 citizens. This trade allowed me to leave Soviet Union for the U.S. Many times, I have jokingly been asked how much grain I was exchanged for.
As someone who was born in the former Soviet Union and came of age in the Soviet military complex, coming to the United States was like entering a completely different world. I soon realized that my English skills were not sufficient to succeed in my newly adopted country.
To jumpstart a new life here, I went back to school. The State University of New York (SUNY) was running a special program for Eastern European professionals to obtain a master equivalent degree. I enrolled to refine my English and to study technology, focusing specifically on computer programming, leading to my first job. While I did programming for a couple of years, it offered me the opportunity to advance in IT management. The gentleman who hired me wanted to help and provided me with invaluable mentorship. Taking this to heart, later in my life I provided that same business opportunity to students, introducing them to real-world business experience through internships at my company. It is a way to pay it forward; to empower each student to feel his/her personal value as an individual.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward, who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Early in my career in the Soviet Union, I was fortunate enough to work for an entrepreneur who had an unconventional leadership style and drive. His name was Andrey Koshik, and he was first and foremost a risk-taker. He saw similar qualities in me, and he began to mentor me and take me to meetings. I started to see how his entrepreneurial mind worked, which help to shape my confidence and helped me develop my own leadership style. By observing his management style, I had an appreciation for how to deal with issues, bureaucracy and, most importantly, people.
So how are things going today?
Like most executives, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected our business. My focus over the past year has been helping both my employees and customers navigate this new landscape. Thankfully, many of our solutions and services enable remote innovation, and we challenged ourselves to accelerate our innovation roadmaps during this time. For example, our Teamwork AR™ solution helps employees with engaging, immersive real-time learning and guidance remotely through collaboration, while also keeping them safe by limiting unnecessary travel. Also, the disruption in the supply chain caused by the pandemic affected a large swath of fashion and apparel brands across the retail and wholesale arena. With that disruption, we focused on assisting our customers by pivoting to offer added immediately needed benefits, including training and consulting. We’ve always taken a customer-first approach to our offerings, and that approach proved to be essential during this past year.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have had the opportunity to work with many wonderful organizations and leaders throughout my career. I serve as vice chairman for Yeshiva University, where I have established a scholarship fund, annually funding 10–15 students. From my work with Yeshiva University, I have focused on mentoring our future leaders. At CGS, we have offered internships for some of the brightest students studying at Yeshiva.
Additionally, I am proud to be on the executive board of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Institute. Tom, a former U.S. Congressman, was Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Tom was a close friend and a person who I admired, learned from and considered to be a titan in government, foreign relations and human rights — fields in which I have a major interest.
I am a trustee of the Committee of Economic Development, which is part of the Conference Board, where I chaired the Technology Committee and co-chaired the Reopening NYC Task Force. This group is charged with developing detailed analysis and recommendations for government and private businesses to help New York City during and after the pandemic.
You have first-hand experience with the U.S. immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest improving the system?
The U.S. is the only place that embraces immigrants from around the world, helping those looking for a better life or may be a refugee from persecution. The immigration system, however, is broken. To help improve the process, I would suggest:
- Set well-defined rules. There are thousands waiting in the system for years while in other situations, people just cross the border. Understanding the ground rules and enforcing those across the board will alleviate the confusion and mitigate suffering.
- Address the short- and long-term immigration policy; the system demands much-needed attention by the U.S. Government. An overarching policy with concrete rules will bring continuity in the long-term. Of course, in the short-term, help may be needed for refugees and the U.S. has always been a safe haven for the downcast.
- Allow foreign students, who come to the U.S. for university degrees, the opportunity to remain after they complete their studies. Too often the best and brightest come here for a good education but they are sent home once they’ve graduated. As the U.S. competes, for example, with China for intellectual property and the need for the brightest human capital, the U.S. should grant students the opportunity to remain here so they can flourish in their chosen careers, while also providing U.S. companies with the talent needed to remain competitive.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Work hard. Anything is possible if you put forward the effort.
- Invest in yourself. Get the skills that you will need to be successful and happy.
- Be a good citizen. Contribute to the greater community. Give back where you can.
- Do what you love to do. If you enjoy your chosen career, you will be successful.
- Relate to people. Have empathy and be a “people person.”
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!