Ever since Robert F. Smith graduated from Columbia Business School with his MBA in 1994, he’s done quite well for himself. According to Forbes, he’s the richest black person in the U.S. with a net worth of $5 billion, more than even Oprah Winfrey. Four years ago, Smith married former Playboy Playmate of the Year and model Hope Dworaczyk on Italy’s Amalfi Coast in an over-the-top wedding that featured performances by John Legend, Seal, and Brian McKnight.
And now the founder of the private equity firm Vista Equity is using some of his wealth to pay off the entire debt burden of the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College. To cover the debt of more than 300 students, the price tag for his gift is likely in the range of $5 million to $10 million, though Smith apparently agreed to pay up to $40 million. The 56-year-old Smith made the announcement while delivering the commencement address at all-male, historically black Morehouse today (May 19) — even though he never attended Morehouse, earning his undergraduate degree in engineering from Cornell University.
“My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans,” Smith told the students. “You great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity. When Dr. King said that the ‘arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,’ he wasn’t saying it bends on its own accord. It bends because we choose to put our shoulders into it together and push.
“Where you live shouldn’t determine whether you get educated. Where you go to school shouldn’t determine whether you get textbooks. The opportunity you access should be determined by the fierceness of your intellect, the courage in your creativity and the grit that allows you to overcome expectations that weren’t set high enough.”
‘POTENTIAL IS NO GUARANTEE OF PROGRESS’
Smith also praised the potential of technology to create capital and wealth for people across the globe as well as improve lives. “Intellectual capital has become the new currency of business and finance — and the promise of utilizing brainpower to move individuals, families and even entire communities from poverty to prosperity within one generation has never been more possible than at this moment in time,” he wrote in an essay for the Giving Pledge.
He made clear, however, that not everyone has the opportunity to reap the benefits of that potential.
“Potential is no guarantee of progress,” Smith added. “We will only grasp the staggering potential of our time if we create onramps that empower ALL people to participate, regardless of background, country of origin, religious practice, gender, or color of skin.”
The son of educators who started his career as a chemical engineer for Goodyear and Kraft, Smith used his MBA with a specialty in finance to transition to Goldman Sachs before starting launching Vista Equity in 2000. The investment firm boasts capital commitments of $46 billion and focuses on investing in software and technology-enabled businesses.
SMITH SIGNED THE BUFFET-GATES GIVING PLEDGE
Before his announcement, he donated $1.5 million to Morehouse College for scholarships and the development of a new park. In 2016, he pledged $50 million to Cornell University, one of his alma maters, to support its chemical and biomolecular engineering school, as well as black and female engineering students.
Two years ago, he signed the Giving Pledge, an effort spearheaded by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to enlist wealthy Americans in giving away half of their fortunes.
Smith said he would invest half of his net worth during his lifetime to causes that support equality for black Americans and the environment, while his wife, model Hope Dworaczyk Smith, would focus on helping children.
He’s also one of the founding donors of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, committing $20 million to the museum before its opening.