Birkelund graduated from Princeton University in 1952 and pursued further studies at Northwestern University. Afterwards, he served as an officer in the U.S. Navy until 1955.
He began his business career in 1956 as an associate of Booze, Allen and Hamilton, followed by 10 years as vice-president and investment manager of Amsterdam Overseas Corporation, a New York-based merchant bank.
In 1967, he became a founding shareholder and chief executive officer of New Court Securities, a newly formed venture capital and investment bank, jointly owned by banks from France, the UK, the Netherlands, and Belgium. During the ensuing fourteen years, his firm emerged as one of the more important investment and venture capital companies in the United States.
In 1981, he joined Dillon Read and Co. as president, and then was elected chief executive officer. A few years later he became chairman of the firm, from which he retired upon its merger with Swiss Warburg in 1997. He continued as general partner of Saratoga Partners, which he had formed in the 1980s.
He was also a director of the New York Stock Exchange, and served on the boards of several large corporations, as well as on the advisory board of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Dedicated to public service, Birkelund was a trustee of Brown University for 18 years and received an honorary doctorate from that university. He chaired the Board of Overseers of Brown’s Institute for International Studies; he was also chairman of the National Humanities Center and the International Executive Service Corps. He was a trustee of The New York Public Library and The American Academy in Berlin, and he was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
In March 1990, President George H. B. Bush asked Birkelund to organize and chair the board of the Polish-American Enterprise Fund. This was a $240 million federal aid program designed to support the emerging market economy in Poland by providing loans to and investments in small and medium size enterprises, along with taking other steps to strengthen the private sector.
The Enterprise Fund became a success story. After it had accomplished its mission, half of the Fund’s original capital was returned to the U.S. Treasury, and the balance of $250 million was transferred to the Polish-American Freedom Foundation. Birkelund, who played a critical role in the formation of the new Foundation, chaired its Board of Directors. He also continued to chair Enterprise Investors, a firm established by the Polish-American Enterprise Fund. With close to $1.0 billion in cumulative assets in 2005, it quickly emerged as the leading private equity fund in Central Europe.
Under Birkelund’s leadership, the Polish-American Freedom Foundation that launched its activities in 2000, has helped strengthen civil society, level the playing field in education, as well as share Poland’s experience in democratic and market reforms with other countries of the region.
He chaired the PAFF Board of Directors until 2012, and then, as Chairman Emeritus, he continued to actively support the Foundation, especially through his investment guidance, as well as by continuing to cultivate his strong bonds with Poland.
In recognition of what he did for Poland during two decades after the historic breakthrough of 1989, President Lech Wałęsa and his successor, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, awarded him with high Polish honors, including the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit with Star.
All of us at the Polish-American Freedom Foundation are deeply indebted to him. It is hard to overstate his contributions to the Foundation or to Polish society as a whole.