Ithaca, NY, US
In the world of business, an investor can make or break a company. The importance of having a solid relationship with investment partners is one of the unwritten rules in the playbook of how to run a successful business. Every startup, old or new, had to face the tough choice of choosing the right investors to drive their ventures forward to the next stage.
Some investors come and reinvent a company, some investors work behind the scenes and steer the course of a company to greater heights, some investors bring in their years of expertise and in-depth knowledge to guide young founders to realize their visions and some investors simply come and change your lives.
There is a famous Hebrew saying, ‘Gam zu l’tovah’, which loosely translates to ‘This is also for the good‘ and it perfectly describes this incredible story of a stalwart investor and a successful entrepreneur who has faced insurmountable obstacles in his life but has been able to overcome them each time with grace. He has drawn inspiration from his family’s past and has gone on to create thriving businesses in places like Costa Rica, Austin and Ithaca, to name a few.
So here’s introducing our next human in the series, the magnetic Steven Freidmutter, CEO of SF Ventures, who has been navigating the world of business and entrepreneurship for decades and has donned many roles ranging from being a passionate investor in start-ups to being an advisory board member and mentor to young founders and a reliant face to many ventures he is a part of through the various VC funds he is involved with. He intends to dedicate the remaining of his years to help young companies and startups especially on the African continent and to empowering female entrepreneurs in finding the right investments to take their vision forward.
A Survival Story
Steven’s early life as he admits, has contributed to a huge part of what he does today.
He proudly declares, ‘I am a child of immigrants and a first generation American.’
The past, as he recalls, has been nothing less than a nightmare, as several members of his family lost their lives during the Holocaust. The only survivor was his grandfather, Mr. Abraham Freidmutter, who had to leave his home in Poland two weeks after Steven‘s dad, Mr. David Freidmutter, was born to search for a better future for his family.
But the road was not smooth sailing. In the initial days, Abraham got turned away from settling in the States and had to revert to Argentina, where he stayed there for four years. Eventually, he landed in New York and that’s where the young family could reunite and have found their home ever since.
‘I have always stood by people who don’t get a fair shot in life as I know what it is like to come from the wrong ‘tribe’.‘ he admits.
He was born and brought up in Brooklyn. He describes how he had a working-class upbringing and getting an education was emphasized upon. His sisters too have all done wonderfully well in their respective fields of law and engineering.
He recalls, ‘Coming from so much trauma and pain, we were always encouraged to do good and look out for the less fortunate.‘
The idea was never about just succeeding as a family, as he would remind us; it was also about looking out to help others in whatever way they could. It was a way to ensure that the past never gets repeated again.
‘I come from a background where you just don’t give up because you can’t…’, he confesses.
The 60s, where he grew up, was the golden era of peace and music. It was the start of the hippie cultural movement as the world got back on its feet after the world wars. He feels blessed to have come of age at such a historical time.
He describes, ‘The world was changing. There were anti-war rallies …and a cultural shift was happening with the introduction of co-ed dorms in institutions.’
The world he inhabited in those days was more ideal and free. He remembers how one could simply pack bags and head off to different continents without any fear. The world he knows now is different than the one he grew up in.
He advises, ‘Even though the world may seem like it’s in a weird place, try and still be a positive force in it.’
No matter how tough the times are , the ability to overcome any adversities is something he has learned and nurtured over the years. It’s a trait he reveals he has inherited from his ancestors who have shown him the path to survival in the face of immense grief and loss.
His biggest inspirations have stemmed from his father’s and grandfather’s lives and the lessons they have imparted to him over the years. And he hopes to maintain their legacy and continue their faith and hope for a better world through his works and projects.
Navigating a business world
His foray into entrepreneurship and business has been influenced by several mentors and bosses he had met along the way who in their own unique way imparted a lesson or two for him to imbibe in his life.
The first guy, as he recalls, who gave him his first shot as a young teenager was his uncle, Mr.Paul Stone, who had an upscale jewelry business in Manhattan, NY. He gave him his first insight into the world of business and recalls working for him when he got out of college. Ever since then he has been one of his earliest and most influential mentors.
He reveals, ‘There are people who believe in you even though you are not yet confident in yourself. He was one of those.’
And the other guy in his life who has been an inspiration to him has been his father, Mr.David Freidmutter, who was a good human being above all else.
‘I happen to come from a good father and a great grandfather.’, he reflects.
He would quote how he was the son of David and the grandson of Abraham with its Biblical references. It was indeed true that honest and moral men were hard to come by, and he counts himself lucky for having been surrounded by men who inspired him to be better.
The passion he has for uplifting young African Startups and women founders stems from his own personal experience of understanding what it means to have a support system to believe in your vision and dreams.
In his portfolio, he recalls investing in immigrants and people who may or may not get another chance in their businesses so that they don’t give up on their ventures and find a way to turn their dreams into a reality.
His remembers spending a decade in Costa Rica, where he owned a coffee farm that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. And this venture had proved to be an economic engine for a small city. This experience would later on provide a path for his ventures in the African tech startup ecosystem.
Known for his Midas touch, Cornell University had offered him a role of ‘visiting entrepreneur‘ and invited him to their tech transfer department to assess their intellectual property and patents and find a way to create thriving companies out of it. This had led to the establishment of a campus called Cornell Tech in New York.
This would catapult his interest in investing in startups and getting involved in funds that help new companies to set themselves up. His prominent role has been his involvement in funds that invest solely in woman entrepreneurs called ‘Chloe Capital‘ and ‘Astia‘. His recent partnership with Launch Africa Ventures is something that has really excited him lately. This VC fund venture based in Cape Town has gone on to invest in more than ninety startups in more than twenty countries and counting.
On being asked what he looks for in founders and creators who seek his presence in their ventures, he replies that he sees their resilience to not give up.
He says, ‘People I get behind can be from twenty different countries, but there is something in common that they have all been through so much that whatever hits them they will find a way to get up again.’
He reveals how his idea has never been to teach people how to run businesses but to show them how to learn to stay ‘alive’ so that they can handle all the hurdles that come with running a successful company or venture.
Love, lost and hope
Coming from a generation of survivors, he believes that’s where he draws his strength from. He explains how he has been able to bounce back each time from his own set of challenges.
He would say, ‘The most important thing is to never give up.’
The fact that his family survived through such tough times makes him feel responsible for carrying forward that legacy of what his family’s history and past represents.
‘There is no playbook anymore with the world we are living in.‘, he explains.
In his second innings, he reveals how all he wishes is to help young people create companies , generate jobs and get a better life . He wants to use all the experience he has garnered over the years to simply help people.
He describes, ‘If people tell me that a conversation with me has made them succeed in something then I feel like I had a good day.‘
His first investments in women entrepreneurs and minority founders came from an initiative to change the statistic of how only around five percent of the VC funds actually get invested into these startups and companies helmed by women. It was a revolutionary idea back in the day and it has seen more funds being set up in this arena to support female founders and their startups.
His initiation into investing in African ventures started with a pitch competition that he attended in New York three years ago. He recalls meeting Derrick Ashong, a Harvard Alumni with Ghanaian roots, and they would go on to form AMP Global Technologies. This partnership would open up doors to more investments in the African continent.
There were indeed moments of immense success and an equal measure of hard times that came by in his life.
A lot of people dear to him have passed away early. He lost his long-term partner and girlfriend, the beautiful Janet, to cancer a couple of years ago. They had met in Costa Rica and she had seen him through good times and bad times. He recalls how she was his best friend as well as his business partner. And losing her had left an irreplaceable void in his life. He also lost his beloved father pretty early when he just got out of college.
Through all the tests that life puts us through, he reminds us of how one has no choice but to learn to move on. His family’s strength and resilience to survive have always inspired him to find the will to push through hard times. He recalls how this had been a challenging time in his life.
And it makes him incredibly appreciative of the life he has been given, and he reflects on how he has outlived most of the people that mattered the most to him in his life.
He would say,’ It makes you appreciate life even more and you don’t take things for granted.’
If there is something that really motivates him now is being surrounded by resilient and determined people who want to make a change in their own way. He feels privileged to be a part of ventures that aim to provide solutions to global issues. There have never been more opportunities in the world than now and he is really grateful to witness the wonderful innovations coming up from different parts of the world. His biggest advice to upcoming entrepreneurs is to find something one is passionate about and simply take that leap of faith.
‘If anyone comes up to me and asks me if I can help them make their business successful or provide a solution to their problems, then I am happy to do it.’, he remarks.
This new phase has brought up amazing opportunities to work alongside wonderful professionals who have blown him away with their work ethics. His focus is now on the next generation of leaders as well as founders to provide them with a helping hand and motivate them to do good in the world.
To new beginnings
Time has indeed flown by and Steven reveals how excited he is to attend his 50th year of High School reunion in June.
He exclaims, ‘It’s been fifty years since I started college.’
Old friends and colleagues have finally found the time to reconnect back on social media. He narrates how he hasn’t seen most of them since they were teenagers. This has been an exciting year for him.
With his passionate projects, there is no slowing down this one visionary with a golden heart. He has given his stamp of approval to more than ninety African tech startups through the Launch Africa Ventures, which has given him a new set of opportunities to explore the young tech ecosystem on the continent .
‘It has been an honor to have young people wanting to hear what I have to say.‘, he reveals.
He narrates how he feels that he is in his ‘post-operational’ days now where he is done with running the different companies he has set up over the years and he now wants to be available for people who want to set up theirs. Whether it is in a consulting role or as an investor or an advisor, he simply wants to be there for people that need him and his expertise in their ventures.
This new beginning in his sixties has given him a new lease of life.
He would say, ‘The best part about my new role is meeting people. There is always something interesting each day.’
From people seeking his advice on which business to start to pitching their ideas on the next app to hit the market, he recalls how it’s been an exhilarating experience to be at the epicenter of innovative solutions to change and create impact in the world.
‘It’s a great feeling to watch people succeed in their ventures.‘, he reveals.
If there is one thing, Steven has taught us is the power of uplifting others. He explains how it’s only when we learn to uplift each other that we all win. There is room for everybody to win and everybody should get an equal shot at succeeding no matter where they come from.
A wise ‘post-operational‘ visionary has single-handedly shown us a way to always find the silver linings in life, handing down the baton of kindness and the need to do good from one generation to the next.
And this is a promise that we intend to keep, to always remember that we will never be too old, to set out on another adventure or to dream a new dream.
This one’s for the second innings in life.