Billionaire investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith had a special announcement during his commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta on May 19. He deviated from his prepared script to tell the faculty, administration, parents, and most importantly the current graduates, that he would be wiping out the student loan debt for the Class of 2019′s nearly 400 graduates.
I have never heard that done before, and as of yet, no one else has stepped up to the plate to do the same. The billionaire tech executive and philanthropist has stayed under the radar much of his career, residing in Austin, Texas and managing Vista Equity Partners, a multi-billion-dollar private equity and wealth management company. Now you know how he made his money, but one wonders what his path to success has been.
Education could be said to be one of the keys to Smith’s success. Both of his parents were doctors and educators, which no doubt influenced Smith in his desire to obtain his degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University. After a stint with several Fortune 500 firms, Smith enrolled in the Columbia University School of Business and earned an M.B.A in 1994 with concentrations in finance and marketing. The segue from chemistry to business had begun. Smith joined Goldman Sachs in mergers and acquisitions in New York City in 1994. After honing his skills on several large deals, including Apple, eBay and Yahoo, Smith left Goldman Sachs in 2000 to found his own company, Vista Equity Partners.
If your non-profit or charity is looking for funding, you have found the right person in Mr. Smith. His philanthropy is enormous, yet he remains under the radar. Again, his parental influence comes in to play. As a child he watched his mother send off a $25 check to the United Negro College Fund each month. Attending the Martin Luther King, I have a Dream speech, with his parents as a child, came full circle when he became a member of the Leadership Circle for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Going back to Morehouse College for a minute, I haven’t heard the exact figure of his graduation gift. However, we know there are about 400 graduates, and the average student has amassed approximately $25,000 in student loan debt. That will be around $10 million! Indeed a nice surprise. With that said, he hasn’t forgotten about his alma mater. In 2016, he and the Fund II Foundation gifted a combined $50 million to Cornell for its chemical and biomolecular engineering school, and to support black and female engineering students. As one might expect, it is now known as the Robert F. Smith School of Engineering. So that’s how the schools get their names.
We would be remiss to point out that Mr. Smith is a family man as well. In 2015, he married actress and former Playboy model Hope Dworaczyk on the Amalfi Coast. They have 2 children. He was previously married to fellow Cornell student Suzanne Smith, by which they have 3 children as well.