Matthew Friedman. An Award-winning Filmmaker, Author And Philanthropist
Updated: Jul 11
Matt Friedman is an international human trafficking expert with more than 30 years’ experience. He is CEO of The Mekong Club, an organization of Hong Kong’s leading businesses which have joined forces to help end all forms of modern slavery. Mr. Friedman previously worked for USAID and the United Nations in over 40 countries. Mr. Friedman offers technical advice to numerous governments, banks and corporations working to eliminate all forms of modern slavery and is the author of twelve books. In 2017, Mr. Friedman won Asia’s prestigious “Communicator of the Year” Gold Award.
Matthew, welcome to The Leader’s Show. It is a pleasure to have you with us today and I'm very excited to know you better. What piqued my interest is your inner desire to be an activist. I would love to know more about how you came to become an activist in addressing modern slavery and human trafficking?
Years ago, I was invited to do public health checks for the Indian government within the red-light districts. I had a police officer accompany me. At one of the brothels, upon entering the waiting area, an 11-year-old Nepalese trafficking victim saw me and ran up to me. She wrapped her arms around my waist, and in Nepalese she said, “Save me, save me, they are doing terrible things to me!”
I looked down in shock at this young girl. She had straight black hair cut in a simple hanging style that reached to her shoulders. A dress, ten sizes too big, hung on her small frame. She had a pre-adolescent body. This was a child in an adult world. I can never forget the pleading desperation in her light brown eyes.
I turned to the police officer and said, “We need to take this girl out of here now.”
“No, we can’t do that,” he said.
“Why not? You’re a cop!”
“Because they will kill us before they will let us leave with her. Finding a child this age will create a lot of problems for them.”
We left, frustrated, but returned several hours later with more police officers. When we arrived back, the young girl was gone. While the officers did a thorough job searching every floor, she was never found.
I will never know what happened to that precious child, but I am sure it included beatings, torture, and a drastically shortened life full of misery. Every once in a while, each of us is given a life test. This was mine, and I failed. I should have found a way to get that girl out of that awful place, and I didn’t.
For weeks after encountering this child, I had traumatic nightmares. I was haunted by the stricken expression etched across her face, along with those pleading eyes looking up at me. I would wake up in a cold sweat with my heart pounding in my chest. During these times, I imagined the things I could have done to help her. I could have simply picked her up and run down the stairs. I could have had the police officer leave and come back with more officers while I stayed at the brothel. There were many other options that came to my mind. The fact that I failed to do these things weighed heavily on my heart.
Not knowing what else to do, I finally surrendered. I accepted the fact that knowing what I did about this problem, I could no longer turn away. I had to step up and become fully involved. At that moment, an activist was born. Many people who fight this injustice have a similar story to tell. The reality of the pain and suffering gets under a person’s skin. Once absorbed, there is no escaping it.
Whenever I feel like changing what I do, I think about this girl. She brings me back to what is important in life. This is why I stay.
Matthew, you are also a great storyteller. Can you share a snippet of Joshua's story with our audience?
For nearly a year, I have posted on LinkedIn on a daily basis. Below is Joshua’s story.
When I was a junior in high school, a new student arrived from Albania. His name was Joshua. He was a tall, thin boy with long hair that had bangs that always seemed to fall over and cover his eyes.
There seemed to be nothing remarkable about this boy. Because his English was limited, he kept to himself. Being shy and quiet, he sat in the back of most classes. I, myself, never saw him talk to anyone. He appeared to be alone all the time. He was one of those kids that most other students didn’t see. He was just another random body sitting in a classroom chair. Near the end of the school year, there was a school-wide talent show. Students would sing, dance, do comedy sketches, and more. While I seldom attended these kinds of events, for some reason I was there that Friday night.
When the last act was introduced, it was Joshua. He slowly strolled to the center of the stage, adjusted the microphone, and then paused as he looked out at the audience in front of him. I honestly thought that maybe he was frozen with fear.
All the participants, including myself, sat there waiting with great anticipation to see what he’d do. His presence on that vast stage seemed so out of character. After an extended pause, he turned toward the curtain, nodded in the direction of the people who started the supporting music, and then he began to sing. The song he chose was Mandy, by Barry Manilow.
All I could say is that the voice that came out of this person was beyond belief. In fact, I felt he sang the song better than Barry Manilow.
When it was over and the song stopped, there was a momentary pause. There was no ovation. Just utter shock.
Then suddenly, the entire audience erupted in applause. Many people stood up to show their appreciation. This lasted for several minutes. It was one of those rare moments in life when a person is truly noticed and acknowledged for the first time. It was a special moment for him and for everyone who attended.
There are probably many people out there who have hidden talents. We don’t notice them because we are too busy focusing on ourselves or others within our circle. This event was a good example of this truth.
This is an important and intriguing story, and I am sure there are many other stories that you share with nearly 25,000 people each year. How does it feel giving talks in schools, churches, and corporations where hundreds of people attend your events?
This question also includes an interesting story. For much of my life, I was terrified of public speaking. I would do anything to avoid this dreaded task.
I can trace my fear to an event that happened in the 3rd grade. Our assignment was to write three paragraphs about Abraham Lincoln. Since I was a student who often completed tasks the morning they were due, I took a shortcut and copied two long paragraphs directly from the encyclopedia. I felt confident although I was cheating.
When our papers were returned the next day, mine was marked unsatisfactory, but this was not the end of it. My teacher asked me to stand up. When I did, she asked if the text I had written was my own. I said yes. Of course, I lied. She asked me again. I said yes, a second time.
She told me to read my paper to the class. I knew I was in trouble. I looked at the essay and realized that I didn’t understand many of the words I had copied down. Since the content was well beyond my reading ability, I couldn’t do it. Having no choice, I began to read, often stumbling over many words. Every time I looked up, hoping she’d allow me to stop, she told me to go on. She was making an example of me.
From that moment, I developed a terrible fear of public speaking. If I couldn’t get out of a required speaking assignment, I spent days before the event with unrelenting fear, suffering from constant mini panic attacks. Most fears, like mine, are based on an irrational criterion. But like many people, I allowed my fear to control me.
Professionally, I am required to give presentations on a regular basis. Public speaking is an integral part of my work in development. But decades after the third grade, I still suffered before every talk. Instead of getting easier, it got worse. The anxiety, trepidation, and loathing took control of my life.
About ten years ago, I thought about the innumerable people who faced audiences every day. What was I so afraid of? Something had to change. So, I decided to face my fears head-on. I was tired of the fear controlling my life.
Whenever presentation volunteers were needed, I stepped up. While my heart would say, “Don’t do it,” my mind took control. The process was not easy but something amazing happened – I was able to rid myself of the sensation of dread and eventually feel confident with each event. This came about after doing as many talks as I could. Repetition was the secret.
While I never eliminated my fear completely, my public speaking continued to improve. Now I realize that a little fear is an important ingredient for a passionate speaker. Fear helps fuel my passion for the subject, inspiring my words and giving them more emotion and power. I now do over 150 speeches a year! It feels good to get in front of an audience to convey important messages. This helps to raise awareness and inspire action.
You once wrote that "People who think too much before they act don't act too much." How do you explain your categorization?
In order for the major community issues of our time to be addressed, I believe that ordinary people must step up and get involved. For this to happen, I describe that there are four important steps involved.
Step One: Decide What Makes your Heart Sing: Everyone has a cause that inspires them. We don’t select our cause; our cause selects us. There is something about each of us that draws us to a particular topic – possibly because of who we are, our value system, our personal experiences or a combination of these factors. If you already know what your cause is, then you are ahead of the game. If you don’t, the first step is to discover that cause. The process begins with a simple set of questions: “What is really important to me? What makes my heart beat faster? What would be my perfect opportunity?”
Step Two: Accept Responsibility: Many of us take the world for granted. We take, but we don’t give back. Before we can give, we often need a reason. The reason is simple. If we take from the world, we should give something back. It is up to each of us to decide what we most want to give back. This is our world, and it is our responsibility to heal and care for it. We can’t control everything, but we can definitely make a difference. Accepting responsibility to help is an essential step to address our chosen issue.
Step Three: Surrender: When many of us hear the word surrender, we might think it is a negative concept. Surrender literally means “to give up or stop fighting”. But there is another definition: “to submit to an idea or concept of service”. The person surrendering stops resisting thoughts and ideas that discourage them to get involved. Any natural tendency to resist surrendering to a higher good must yield to what we know is best for our world and ourselves. This third step focuses on turning our brain off, opening our heart and letting the question, “What do I do now?” unfold. All a person has to do is to say, “I accept responsibility for a portion of the world’s problems. I realize I have something to offer. I understand it is easy to walk away, but I will not do so. I am ready to do my part.” People who think too much before they act don’t act too much. That is why surrendering is so essential – it takes this indecisiveness out of the equation.
Step Four: Help: Nike got it right when they came up with the slogan – “Just Do It.” It is a call to action, a challenge, a command, a commitment and so much more. When it comes to taking a stand and helping, a similar spirit is required. What is my point? Something great often comes from the accumulation of many small things.
If everyone stood up and did at least one thing to add to the solution, a monumental outcome could be possible. There is great strength in numbers. Thus, if 10 million people make 10 million decisions to act, this represents 10 million steps forward.
Based on your experience and education, what qualities, in your opinion, distinguish a true leader?
I divide leadership qualities into three categories.
First, an effective leader should offer a path forward for his/her team. This includes having a clear vision of how things can be, along with sufficient imagination to come up with innovative, insightful suggestions forward to make it happen. For this approach to work, the leader must be comfortable in making timely decisions. Likewise, the person should also be open to new ideas and a willingness to evolve and change. Open-mindedness is a must.
Second, a good leader allows her/her team to step up, to manage, and to run the show. As part of this emphasis on inclusiveness, a good leader works to develop a good team spirit by honoring others, empowering and delegating responsibility, and offering sympathy and understanding when things don’t work out. A good leader is also willing to do any job alongside his/her team and accept responiblity when things fail.
Third, a good leader acts as a role model for others. He/she has characteristics which include: courage, confidence, self-control, and a sense of fairness and justice. Most good leaders also have a pleasing personality that disarms others.
What are your future plans?
I plan to spend the rest of my life focusing on two important efforts.
First, I plan to continue fighting the scourge of human trafficking. This includes doing everything in my power to come up with innovative approaches to prevent human trafficking, address the needs of those who have been trafficked, and see that those who perpetrate the crime are punished. For me, this is the issue of our time.
Second, I plan to do what I can to help inspire ordinary people to step up and help to address the issues of our time. I consider everyone who volunteers, no matter how big or small the gesture, to be heroic. There is heroism within each and every one of us. It is a voice of good, righteousness, action and love. In today’s world, this voice too often lies dormant and receives very little nurturing. This heroic part of you can rise up and face the problems of the world head-on.
Yes, our world is in trouble, but we don’t have to passively accept it. If we all come together as one, we could chip away at every global problem. For this to happen, we need to accept some responsibility to help and then follow through. It’s as simple as that.
As a person who has spent much of his life in public service, I have received more from giving than I could have possibly imagined. But this only came after I took that first step. Addressing the big issues of our time isn’t someone else’s responsibility – it belongs to each of us.
When an army of ordinary people joins together for a common purpose, they can support the organizations already dedicated to the cause. This approach has worked many times before in our history, and it can work again. But for this to happen, we must all take those heroic first steps.
Finally, we'd like to send a motivational message to all young people who want to have a successful career but find it difficult due to their circumstances.
There are three core values I live by related to my career.
First, young people should make an attempt to find a job that they really enjoy. Since most of us spend a significant amount of time working, if we are not happy with our job, this can be a great source of anguish. As for me, I try to learn as much as I can about my boss and team before I make the final decision to take a position.
Second, for me, it is not about the money, it is about the work I will be doing. I know of many people who have great-paying jobs, but they are hopelessly unhappy. What is the use of this money if your life is not fulfilling? Young people should take this into consideration when choosing a career path.
Finally, I accept the fact that I will be a student forever. There is never a point when we should stop learning. For this reason, I often tell people I don’t want to be called an expert. It assumes I know everything that I need to know. This is often not the case. For this reason, young people should try to do all they can to learn new things throughout their careers.