By now you know that a Black billionaire spoke at Morehouse’s 2019 graduation ceremony and pledged to pay off the student loan debt of the entire class. His name? Robert Frederick Smith. He is the richest Black person in America — richer than Oprah and Jordan, combined. He largely made his fortune investing in the technology sector and went on to found Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm. In 2017 Forbes named Smith one of the 100 greatest living business minds. Robert Smith is not just a guy who pays off student debt, he’s an actual legend.
Smith grew up in Denver, born to two educators. His parents both had Ph.D.s but were in fact school teachers — perhaps a reflection of the lack of opportunity even the most educated Black people have faced in America. Smith was determined to achieve and get his way from the start. He was a good student and while in high school, applied for an internship at Bell Labs. Despite being told that he was too young for the opportunity he called each day for five months, until he was given his shot. That summer he developed a reliability test for semiconductors. He went on to Cornell University where he studied chemical engineering and later earned his M.B.A from Columbia University.
Smith started his career as a chemical engineer, working for Air Products & Chemicals, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and later at Kraft General Foods. In 1994 Smith joined Goldman Sachs in technology investment banking, setting the stage for him to start Vista Equity Partners just six years later. Vista Equity Partners owns over 50 software companies and has 60,000 employees around the globe, meaning it ranks as the fourth largest enterprise software company — it only trails Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP. In 2015 Vista Equity Partners was recognized as the best performing private equity firm over the previous 10 years. Smith is pretty good at what he does.
In addition to a great business mind, Smith is a philanthropist and keenly focused on causes important to the Black community. Smith had previously donated $1.5 million to Morehouse for scholarships and to develop a new park. He donated $20 million to help create the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in DC. Smith is the founder and president of the Fund II Foundation. The Foundation provides grants for human rights causes, the environment, music education and “preserving the African American experience.” Smith also loves music — he was named chairman of the board of Carnegie Hall, the first Black person to receive such the honor. Closer to his roots, he bought and restored Lincoln Hills, outside Denver, where Black royalty like like Duke Ellington once played.
Robert Smith is many things — a chemical engineer, philanthropist, investor, entrepreneur, father, husband and friend. He is a Black man who has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors and is still defying odds. To the 2019 graduates of Morehouse he is the ultimate benefactor and to us the ultimate inspiration. Robert F. Smith is simply, in this moment, the man.