Robert F.Smith is a billionaire who gave the commencement speech at Morehouse College on Sunday, telling the graduating students his “gift” was to pay off all of their student loans.
Smith, a private equity investor, is one of the wealthiest African Americans in the world, and the richest black person in the United States. According to Black Enterprise, his estimated net worth as of 2019 is $5 billion.
Smith attended Cornell University as an undergraduate, then attended Columbia’s School of Business to get his MBA.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Smith Is a Billionaire & Philanthropist, With a Career in Private Equity
Smith is a billionaire who has amassed a fortune largely through his company, Vista Equity Partners. According to The Washington Post, he keeps an extremely private profile, and doesn’t even have a photo on his own company’s site.
Smith is chairman and chief executive of Vista Equity Partners. His bio from Black Enterprise reads in part,
Heralded as a private equity titan and Wall Street wiz, Smith started his early life out as a computer geek working in STEM before earning a degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University. He also attended Columbia Business School and ended up serving as co-chief of the investment banking division at Goldman Sachs. Smith founded Vista Equity Partners in 2000, which focuses on investing in technology companies.
In 2013, BE named the firm BE100s Financial Services Company of the Year and Smith as one of the Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street. Smith made a shrewd move in acquiring Sunquest Information Systems Inc., for a relative bargain price of $327 million–$200 million in equity and $127 million in debt.
2. WATCH: Smith Tells the Graduating Class that He Was Providing a Grant to Eliminate Student Debt for the Class of 2019
During his commencement speech at Morehouse College on Sunday, Smith received an honorary degree, then proceeded to tell the class of 2019 that he would be paying for their cumulative student debt.
Smith said, “On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. Now, I’ve got the alumni over here, and this is a challenge to you, alumni: this is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
After Smith made that announcement, you can see the shock and celebration take place in the audience, as the students registered fully what Smith was saying.
After the applause and chants of “MVP” died down, he also said in part, “I know my class will make sure they pay this forward… and I want my class to look at these alumnus, these beautiful Morehouse brothers, and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward.”
3. This Isn’t Smith’s First Charitable Act; He Donated $20 Million to the African American Museum in 2016
In 2016, Smith was the subject of another massive charitable effort, when he donated $20 million to the African American Museum in 2016. He was the second highest donor, next to Oprah, who donated $21 million.
To The Washington Post in an interview, Smith said that he decided to become a little bit more public in his efforts to improve the African American experience in the United States after he witnessed the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Smith said, “The vision I was sold as a kid is unraveling. I see the little tears in the fabric of society every day. This cannot be…We have to do something. We have to do something for our community.”
4. Smith Is Worth an Approximate $5 Billion
Smith was worth an estimated $2.5 billion, as of 2016. Since then, he has reportedly amassed an additional $2.5 billion, and his net worth in March was believed to be $5 billion.
Smith has achieved a series of historic milestones throughout his life. In 2016, he was named the first African-American, as well as the first non-New Yorker, to be named the chairman of New York’s Carnegie Hall. He has also served as chairman of the Robert F. Kennedy center for Justice and Human Rights in the past.
To The Washington Post in 2016, Smith noted his desire to get African Americans involved in computers and software, saying, “This is the first time in history you can create wealth and not have access to capital. You just need intellectual property. A blogger who has a large audience can create wealth by attracting advertisers. I am showing the current generations of African Americans they can do it, too. So the next generation can go even higher.”
5. The Estimated Gift for the Class of 2019 Is $40 Million
Smith’s gift to the class of 2019 was no small sum: according to AJC, the collective student debt amount for the entire class sits at around $40 million.
In response to Smith’s charitable donation, many on Twitter are lauding him as an icon. One Twitter user wrote, “This is a small example of Black wealth, position, & power used properly.”
Another user wrote, “Imagine if every billionaire did this. Pick one school and unburden an entire generation. Well done Robert F. Smith.”