Robert Frederick Smith
December 1, 1962
|Education||Cornell University (BS)|
Columbia Business School (MBA)
|Title||Chairman & CEO, Vista Equity Partners|
(m. 1988; div. 2014)
Robert Frederick Smith (born December 1, 1962) is an American billionaire businessman and philanthropist. He is the founder, chairman, and CEO of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. He graduated from Cornell University with a chemical engineering degree and from Columbia Business School with an MBA, before working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. In 2019, while delivering the commencement speech at Morehouse College, Smith pledged to pay off the entire $34 million of student loan debt of all of the members of the 2019 graduating class.
Smith was born in Denver, Colorado, the fourth generation in his family to be born in Colorado. His parents were Dr. William Robert Smith, an elementary school principal, and Dr. Sylvia Myrna Smith, the principal of George Washington High School, who both had PhDs in education. His father had attended the University of Denver on a band scholarship, playing percussion and piano. Asked about his mother in 2020, he said: "She usually calls me to tell me what I can do a little better." His paternal grandmother was an educator, and his paternal grandfather was a Pullman Porter. His maternal grandfather was a postmaster for three post offices in the Washington, D.C. area, and before that while in high school worked in the U.S. Russell Senate Office Building, serving coffee and taking hats and coats in the lounge.
He grew up in a predominantly African-American, middle-class neighborhood in East Denver. When he was an infant, his mother carried him when he was six months old at the March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. He attended Carson Elementary School and Gove Junior High School in Denver.
Education and early career
Smith then attended East High School ('81) in Denver. While in high school, he applied for an internship at Bell Labs, but was told the program was intended for college students. Smith persisted, calling each Monday for five months. When a student from M.I.T. did not show up, he got the position, and that summer he developed a reliability test for semiconductors.
Smith earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1985. While there, he won the Procter and Gamble Technical Excellence Award for chemical engineering. In 1982 he was initiated as a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha (APA) fraternity, the first African-American intercollegiate Greek-lettered fraternity.
After graduating from Cornell, Smith worked at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and Air Products & Chemicals. Later, he worked at Kraft General Foods as a chemical engineer, and registered two United States and two European patents as the principal investor.
From 1994 to 2000, after receiving his MBA he worked for investment bank Goldman Sachs in technology investment banking. He first worked for it in New York City, and then moved to Silicon Valley in 1997 where he started Goldman's technology-focused merger and acquisitions efforts there. He advised on $50 billion in merger and acquisition activity with companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, eBay, and Yahoo.
Vista Equity Partners
In 2000, Smith founded Vista Equity Partners, an Austin, Texas-based private equity and venture capital firm of which he is the principal founder, chairman, and chief executive. Vista purchased enterprise software businesses and brought performance improvements to the businesses. According to Black Enterprise magazine, Smith was credited with consistently generating a 30% rate of return for his investors from the company's inception through 2020. As of 2019, Vista Equity Partners was the fourth-largest enterprise software company, after Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP, including all their holdings. Vista has invested in companies such as STATS, Ping Identity, and Jio. As of 2019, Vista Equity Partners had closed more than $46 billion of funding.
In 2016, Smith was named Private Equity International's Game Changer of the Year for his work with Vista.
In 2018, Smith was included in Vanity Fair's New Establishment List, which is an annual ranking of individuals who have made impactful business innovations. The 2019 PitchBook Private Equity Awards named Vista Equity Partners "Dealmaker of the Year".
In 2014, Smith became the founding director and president of the Fund II Foundation, which has invested in organizations such as Cornell, the National Park Foundation, and Susan G. Komen, while also donating money to causes preserving African-American history and culture, music education, and the environment.
In May 2017, The Giving Pledge announced that Smith had joined as its first African-American signatory. That year, he also made a $15 million donation to Columbia Business School to help it expand to its new Manhattanville campus.
In 2018, Smith was the largest individual donor at the City of Hope Gala, which funds prostate cancer treatment and breast cancer research for black men and women. That same year, Smith donated $2.5 million to the Prostate Cancer Foundation to advance prostate cancer research among African-American men. Also in 2018, Smith donated $1 million to the Cultural Performance Center at the Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park in Harlem, which was later renamed the Robert Frederick Smith Center for Performing Arts. Also in 2018, his Fund II Foundation gave a $2.7 million grant to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, with the grant helping digitize Armstrong's collection to make it available to the public.
On May 19, 2019, during his 2019 commencement speech at Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta, Georgia, Smith said he would pay off the entire student loan debt of the 2019 Morehouse College graduating class of 396 students, a reported $34M in student loan debt, including the debt incurred by parents and guardians. He had previously donated $1.5 million to the school in January 2019, to be used for scholarships and a park.
In a June 2020 report, Time reported the launch of The Student Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit led by Smith, to benefit HBCU students.
In January 2022, he donated $10 million to Columbia Business School, to fund a scholarship program for students graduating from historically black colleges and universities, from diverse backgrounds who have overcome significant hardships or challenges in their academic pursuits, or who have demonstrated a strong commitment to engaging principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
In May 2022, Cornell University announced a $15 million donation from Smith that will provide financial aid to engineering students from historically underrepresented communities. The gift will support an undergraduate scholarship fund to provide at least 7 students a year from urban high schools with up to $45,000 in grants, in addition to setting up a graduate fellowship fund to support 12 master’s students and five doctoral students who attended historically black colleges and universities.
Smith has donated $30 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He has also donated to the Sphinx Organization, which supports diversity in the arts.
In December 2022, taking a stand together against increasing instances of racism and antisemitism in the US, Smith joined New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Reverends Al Sharpton and Conrad Tillard, World Values Network founder and CEO Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Elisha Wiesel to host 15 Days of Light, celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in a unifying holiday ceremony at Carnegie Hall.  Smith said: "When we unify the souls of our two communities, we can usher in light to banish the darkness of racism, bigotry, and antisemitism."
In the 1990s, businessman Robert T. Brockman approached Smith about creating a private equity fund, and offered to back the initial fund. As part of the deal, Brockman required an offshore trust be set up to conceal earnings from tax authorities and avoid litigation in US courts. Brockman also required that the first fund be located in the Cayman Islands, and set aside some of the interest earned to protect him against losses. Brockman's proposal was a "take-it-or-leave-it offer". According to Smith's later non-prosecution agreement, Brockman dictated "the unique terms and unorthodox structure to the arrangement" and he accepted the offer as a "unique business opportunity he eagerly wanted to pursue". Brockman's lawyer helped Smith set up the offshore entity.
In October 2020, Smith entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), agreeing to assist the DOJ in a separate case against Brockman who was charged that month with what the DOJ called the "largest ever" tax fraud scheme by a U.S. citizen, and to pay a fine of $139 million. According to the DOJ, Brockman led Smith to use the offshore trust that concealed income. Brockman died in August 2022, while his trial was pending.
Smith has served as the chairman of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, on the board of overseers of Columbia Business School, as a member of the Cornell Engineering College Council, on the Cornell University Tech Board, and since 2008 as a Trustee of the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco.
Smith became the board chairman of Carnegie Hall in 2016, the first African-American to hold that position; he had been a member of the board since 2013. Since 2018, Smith has served as a board member of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
In October 2022, media outlets including TMZ, Revolt TV, Variety, and Vibe Magazine published an article highlighting Smith being nominated by Floyd Mayweather, Jr. to serve as executive producer of a series of film and television projects titled "The GOAT" aimed to tell Mayweather's life story. Mayweather said: “As someone who owns his own brand, I can’t think of better partners than Deon (Deon Taylor), Roxanne (Roxanne Avent Taylor), Robert F. Smith — the wealthiest African American in the world — and Hidden Empire Films, a prolific Black-owned production company.”
Honors and awards
In 2010, Smith received the Ripple of Hope Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
In 2016, Cornell University named the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering after him, following a donation. Smith received the 2016 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Chairman's Award.
In 2017, Smith was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Denver. That year, Smith was also named by Forbes as one of the 100 greatest living business minds. That year Smith also received Ebony’s John H. Johnson Award. Also in 2017, Smith was named in The Chronicle of Philanthropy's "Philanthropy 50".
He received an honorary doctorate at Morehouse College in 2019. He was inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame as a Class of 2019 Legend. In October 2019, Smith received the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, which is given to individuals who have donated private wealth to the public. He also received the 2019 United Negro College Fund President’s Award.
Smith was included in the Time 100 in 2020, Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2020, he was also recognized by Cornell University with its Distinguished Alumni Award.
He received the Award of Excellence from the National Association of Investment Companies. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of International Affairs from American University's School of International Service. He has been a trustee at Columbia Business School.
In 1988, Smith married his first wife, fellow Cornell alum Suzanne McFayden. They divorced in 2014. Smith married Hope Dworaczyk, the founder and CEO of skincare company MUTHA, a former Playboy playmate, healthy living advocate, and fashion editor, on July 25, 2015, after she gave birth to their first child in December 2014. Smith has three children with his first wife. He also has two sons and two daughters with his wife Hope. Smith owns homes in Austin, Texas, Malibu, California, New York City, Denver, and Florida.
Smith partnered with Matthew Burkett to purchase the historic Lincoln Hills, Colorado property in Gilpin County in 2007 and convert it into an exclusive invitation-only fly fishing club. Lincoln Hills was founded in 1922 as a destination summer resort for Black families. He now uses it to host musicians and underprivileged schoolchildren.
In a 2018 cover story, Forbes said that Smith the wealthiest African-American, passing Oprah Winfrey. As of 2021, Smith was one of 15 Black billionaires in the world. In November 2023, Forbes said his net worth was $9.2 billion, and that he was the 78th-richest person in the United States, and the 235th-richest person in the world.
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