Robert Friedland was born in Chicago, Illinois, the eldest of three children born to immigrant parents Ilona (née Muller) and Albert Friedland. Friedland's Father survived three years in Auschwitz while his mother worked as a forced laborer during the Holocaust. He was expelled from Bowdoin College in 1970 after being arrested by federal authorities for the possession of an estimated $100,000 worth of LSD, a crime for which he served two years in federal prison. He graduated in 1974 from Reed College, Oregon, USA, with a political science degree. His senior year at Reed, Friedland was student body President. During his time at Reed he met Steve Jobs the co-founder of Apple, with whom he shared an interest in Eastern spirituality. At the time, Friedland served as the caretaker of an apple farm south of Portland that was owned by his millionaire uncle Marcel Muller and Jobs would come on the weekends and help with the apple orchard, which served as the inspiration for the name of his company, Apple Inc. Friedland turned the orchard into a commune called All One Farm.
Friedland was chairman of Galactic Resources which operated Summitville mine, the site of the United States' worst cyanide release and mine bankruptcy and Superfund site. This mine closed in 1990 but continues to affect the region. It is estimated that at least $120 million will be required to clean up the bankrupt Galactic Resources mining site, which has damaged 17 miles of river. The former environmental manager of the facility has been indicted for intentionally dumping lead and cyanide directly into streams.
Friedland was Chief Executive Officer of Canada-based Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. (IVN: TSX, NYSE & NASDAQ), which he founded in 1994 and led to a successful initial public offering on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1996. He served as Chairman, and later as Executive Chairman, until 2011. Exploration by Ivanhoe Mines since 2000 has discovered a chain of copper, gold and silver deposits at Oyu Tolgoi (Turquoise Hill) in Mongolia’s South Gobi region. The first phase of what is independently projected to be one of the world’s largest porphyry copper and gold mines is under construction at Oyu Tolgoi and is expected to begin commercial production in 2013. Ivanhoe Mines also has substantial interests in SouthGobi Resources, Ivanhoe Australia and Altynalmas Gold.
By 2005, Friedland had staked a claim larger than Greece in Mongolia's Gobi Desert, an area containing copper and gold at the Oyu Tolgoy, or Turquoise Hill, site that he claimed could be worth more than $100 billion. In October 2012 Sarah Armstrong, chief legal counsel of Southgobi Resources, was temporarily detained in Mongolia and prevented from leaving the country for several months due to allegations that company management had bribed Mongolian state officials. The allegations resulted in the shutdown and search of SouthGobi headquarters in Mongolia by a Mongolian anti-corruption agency. Robert Friedland had been trying to sell his major (57.6%) stake in Southgobi Resources, which owned a major coal mining license in Mongolia, to Chalco, a Chinese state-owned corporation. Mongolian popular opposition to majority ownership by foreign state-owned enterprises of companies in their mining industry spurred action against the Southgobi deal and caused the suspension of the company's mining license for several months in 2012. By May 2013 another chief financial officer at Southgobi Resources, Justin Capla who was previously questioned by Mongolian Anti Corruption Agency for bribing and money laundering actions case is being transferred to prosecution stage after 1 year of processing. The Southgobi Resources ltd. is owned by Rio Tinto corporation.
Friedland operates Ivanhoe Capital from its corporate headquarters in Singapore – a location that has facilitated his predominant Business focus on the Asia Pacific region during the past 20 years.