Robert F. Smith

Robert F. Smith and the Inspiration for Student Freedom Initiative

Robert F. Smith, philanthropist

The name Robert F. Smith might ring a bell for some after his monumental gift to the Morehouse Class 2019 which paid off their entire student debt – but his passion for helping minority students extends far beyond this one act. Smith, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, was inspired after his gift to Morehouse students to provide a solution so more minority students can get a degree, even if they face financial barriers. A big part of Smith’s philanthropic endeavors shines light on students attending Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) and to ensure they have an equal opportunity in education. This led to the inspiration and creation of Student Freedom Initiative to address racial and economic barriers within the education system. The students at Virginia State University and other MSIs are offered assistance to help overcome the struggles that come along with student debt. Student Freedom Initiative not only helps students financially, but it serves as a foundation for preparing students for their future lives and careers. The Initiative began with a $50 million donation from Fund II Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on creating a better future for African Americans. Smith serves as founding director and President of Fund II Foundation and matched the initial $50 million donation himself to get Student Freedom Initiative successfully launched.

Smith’s Early Years

Growing up in Denver, Colorado with educator parents taught Smith a lot about the importance of academics. His parents encouraged him to attend a school with better resources even though it was outside of his middle-class neighborhood in Denver. This decision, though may have seemed small at the time, turned into a life-changing experience for Smith. The education he received provided him with opportunities that he may not have had if he didn’t attend a school that required busing out of his Black neighborhood. This is why Smith today places a huge emphasis on equal access to education especially for students of color living in underserved communities.

The Path to Entrepreneurship

After graduating from high school, Smith was ambitious to continue his education and expand his knowledge even further. However, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were many challenges for Smith as an African American. He didn’t let these obstacles stop him and pursued an incredible internship opportunity at Bell Labs while still a high school student. Even though he was denied this opportunity the first time, his tenacity pushed him through to continue contacting Bell Labs. He eventually made himself known and earned the position that he wanted. This was only the beginning of Smith’s path to academic success. Smith went on to continue his internship at Bell Labs and began his education at Cornell University where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Upon graduation at Cornell, Smith worked at a handful of well-known companies including Kraft General Foods and Goodyear Tire and Rubber. Each one of these positions helped expand Smith’s knowledge and sparked his curiosity to do more. This led him to Columbia Business School where he graduated in 1994 with a MBA. With his MBA, a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and the ambition to continue expanding his knowledge, Smith kickstarted his career at Goldman Sachs. He worked here for many years in a position where he advised on mergers and acquisitions in the technology and software industries. In 2000, Smith founded Vista Equity Partners where he currently serves as Chairman and CEO. Vista Equity Partners (Vista) is a leading global investment firm that is exclusively focused on enterprise software, data and technology-enabled companies. Vista works closely with its private equity and permanent capital portfolio of companies to help them grow, scale and innovate.

A Life of Philanthropy: Smith’s Accomplishments and Recognitions

Smith has made his mark in the world of finance but he’s done even more to give back to the community. With a focus on giving back to the community, Smith supports initiatives that advocate for equality and social justice for minority communities. To set the standard for his giving, Smith signed the Giving Pledge – becoming the first African American to do so – pledging to donate half of his net worth throughout his lifetime to philanthropic causes.

Smith has already actively been giving back to the community through donations that support education programs including Student Freedom Initiative. Among this growing program, Smith has also supported an array of other educational initiatives including:

  • The Robert F. Smith ’94 Scholarship Fund at Columbia
  • Robert F. Smith Undergraduate Scholarship Fund at Cornell
  • UNCF STEM Scholars Program
  • The Robert F. Smith Internship Program at the American Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Eagle Academies

While supporting education equality is a major focus for Smith’s giving, he also gives back to other organizations that are actively working to promote diversity and inclusion. He serves as an at-large member of the board of Business Roundtable, cultivating solutions for creating a more diverse workplace for future generations. Smith also supports Girls Who Invest, an organization actively working to bridge the gender gap in the finance industry. T

Through Smith’s avid philanthropic giving, he has been recognized over the years and awarded prestigious honors. To recognize his efforts, Smith received the honor of the Ripple of Hope Award by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and was a recipient of the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy both recognizing his outstanding philanthropy in the community. Smith has received other honors including Forbes Diversity & Inclusion Award, TIME magazine 100 Most Influential People and for two years in a row, the Cornell College of Engineering’s Distinguished Alumni Award.