It’s graduation season at colleges all across the nation, but one commencement ceremony will stand out in the minds of many for the rest of their lives. Graduates of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, will be telling their grandchildren about their graduation “way back in 2019”. Why? Because of the generosity of one man, Robert Frederick Smith.
Mr. Smith gave the commencement speech at Morehouse last Sunday. Watch (pay particular attention to the guy in the lower left-hand corner) …
Who, you ask, is Robert Frederick Smith? Never heard of him, have you? Well, he is a 56-year-old African-American man, originally from Colorado, currently living in Austin, Texas. He is a businessman, investor, and philanthropist, a former chemical engineer and investment banker. He is the founder, chairman, and CEO of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. Not the sort of person I typically feature in my good people posts, and not the sort we usually think of when we think of ‘generosity’.
Smith’s net worth is estimated at $5 billion, but he is not your typical billionaire. Smith was not born into abject poverty, but neither was he born into wealth. Both of his parents were schoolteachers and his was very much a middle-class upbringing. But Smith had drive, he had ambition, and he knew at an early age what he wanted.
As a junior in high school, Smith landed an internship at Bell Labs — by calling the company every week for five months until he got a slot. Smith tinkered with computers during his summer and winter breaks and went on to study chemical engineering at Cornell University. He earned an MBA from Columbia University, followed by an investment banking job at Goldman Sachs. After advising billion-dollar mergers for tech companies such as Microsoft and Apple, he left Goldman to found Vista Equity Partners in 2000. Today, Robert Smith is the wealthiest African-American in the nation.
Smith’s gift to Morehouse graduates is far from his first act of generosity. Prior to the 2003 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., Smith donated $20 million. In 2016, he gave $50 million to Cornell University for its chemical and biomolecular engineering school, and to support black and female engineering students. He is the founding director and president of the Fund II Foundation. Under his leadership, Fund II Foundation has invested in organizations such as Cornell, United Negro College Fund (UNCF), National Park Foundation, Susan G. Komen, and Global Wildlife Conservation, among many others.
In 2018, Smith was the largest individual donor at the City of Hope Gala, earmarking funds towards prostate cancer treatment for black men and for breast cancer research for black women. Smith also donated $2.5 million to the Prostate Cancer Foundation to advance prostate cancer research among African-American men.
In 2017, Smith signed on for The Giving Pledge, joining such notable philanthropists as Bill & Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and currently 190 others.
“I will never forget that my path was paved by my parents, grandparents and generations of African-Americans whose names I will never know. Their struggles, their courage, and their progress allowed me to strive and achieve. My story would only be possible in America, and it is incumbent on all of us to pay this inheritance forward. For these reasons, on behalf of my family, I am privileged to join the Giving Pledge with a commitment to invest half my net worth—during my lifetime—to causes that support equality of opportunity for African Americans, as well as causes that cultivate ecological protection to ensure a livable planet for future generations.”
As you all know, I typically have little or no use for billionaires, as very few use their wealth to help people. But when a man pledges to pay off the student debt for 396 college graduates, my hat is off to him.
I did a bit of research and found that the average white college graduate leaves school with $28,650 in student loan debt. But, according to Brookings Institute, the average black student has an additional $7,400 in debt, in part because black parents have less wealth to help pay for their children’s educations. So, what Mr. Smith has done for these graduates is no small thing, for the total could well end up being around $15 million, according to my calculations. And what he said toward the end of his speech … he called on those graduates to “pay it forward” … will ensure that his gift is one of those that ‘keeps on giving’.