Robert F. Smith

Robert F. Smith

After the famed commencement address to the 2019 graduating class of fellow Historically Black Institution, Morehouse College, philanthropist Robert F. Smith envisioned a program that would serve as a catalyst for freedom in professional and life choices for students of underrepresented backgrounds attending Minority Serving Institutions. Out of that dream, Student Freedom Initiative was born.

With this program, qualifying juniors and seniors in STEM fields at Xavier University of Louisiana may have a portion of their college education funded under an income-contingent funding arrangement known as a Student Freedom Agreement. This agreement serves as an alternative to high-cost, fixed payment student loan debt obligations. Yet, Student Freedom Initiative offers more than just a financial aid alternative. Students in the program will also gain access to internships, tutoring, mentoring, and other support resources that will help them succeed in their educational and career endeavors.

Dr. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, is proud to be part of the initiative and thankful to Smith. "Thank you for this initiative that profoundly reduces the debt burden of our students,” stated Verret. “This enables them [students] to refine their talents and to be of service to our communities and to be of service to our communities and nation."

Smith, however, not only helped conceive the idea of Student Freedom Initiative. He also is a major investor, personally donating $50 million to the cause. His gift matched the initial funding of $50 million provided by Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is the founding director and President.

Smith’s Early Years

Smith’s zest for education was cultivated in his youth. He is the son of two educators from Denver, Colorado, both of which hold doctorates in education, and was taught early on the importance of a good education. Smith strived for academic and career excellence, securing a coveted internship at Bell Labs in high school, which was usually reserved for college students. In 1985, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University and went on to work at prestigious companies like Goodyear Tire and Rubber and Kraft General Foods.

Yet, engineering was not all that Smith was interested in. In 1994, Smith graduated with a MBA from Columbia University and secured a position at Goldman Sachs. There, he cultivated his interest for mergers and acquisitions, starting his own technology-centered investment firm in 2000, Vista Equity Partners, of which he is Founder, Chairman, and CEO.

Smith’s Philanthropy and Awards

Smith is more than just an entrepreneur and engineer. He has also dedicated much of his life to philanthropy. For example, in 2017, he became the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge, committing to donate half his wealth throughout his life. Yet, one of his greatest passions is furthering educational opportunities for minority students. In 2019, he gifted $34 million to the graduating class of Morehouse College. He also supports such programs as:

  • The Robert Frederick Smith Tech Scholars Program
  • The UNCF Sylvia M. Young Smith Scholarship
  • Fund II Foundation UNCF STEM Scholars Program
  • InternX
  • NSBCPA CPA Breakthrough

In 2016, Smith also made a generous gift to Cornell University’s College of Engineering, his alma mater. In recognition of his generosity and achievements, Cornell’s engineering school was renamed Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Smith also continues to support organizations that not only expand job training opportunities and increase access to education for members of minority groups but also support the arts, protect the environment and connect the youth to STEM fields. For his efforts, he has been bestowed numerous honors, including the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, the UNCF President’s Award, and the Ripple of Hope Award from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. He also made TIME100’s most influential people of 2020, listed among Forbes’ 100 Greatest Living Business Minds, and inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in 2019 Inductee. He continues to serve as Chairman of Carnegie Hall, is on the Board of Overseers of Columbia Business School, a Member of the Cornell Engineering College Council, and a Trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco.

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