Robert F. Smith
Founder, Chairman and CEO, Vista Equity Partners
Robert F. Smith is an engineer, investment professional, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He currently serves as Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a leading global investment firm that exclusively focuses on enterprise software, data and technology-enabled companies. Smith is also the founding director and President of the Fund II Foundation.
While he is widely known for his business prowess and success in the private equity industry, he is just as passionate about philanthropy, especially pertaining to helping uplift the Black American community and other underserved groups. After witnessing how his $34 million donation to pay off the student debt of the 2019 Morehouse College graduating class financially liberated those students, Smith was inspired to create Student Freedom Initiative. Over his career, he has also made several financial contributions to his alma maters to support minority scholarship opportunities.
History: Early Life and Career Path
Born to two educators in 1962 in Denver, Colorado, Smith was always surrounded by new ideas, which helped generate his love and passion for learning. However, what he took the most from his hard-working, middle-class upbringing was the importance of a good education and the drive to succeed. Throughout his formative years, Smith watched his parents work hard and dedicate themselves to noble causes like the Civil Rights Movement. His mother even donated $25 each week to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) — no matter the family’s financial situation.
Smith took this drive and compassion with him as he went through the Denver public school system and eventually applied to a prestigious Bell Laboratory internship while still in high school. As the position was meant for college students, Smith was originally rejected, but after months of persistence, he was given the opportunity to interview and was offered the position. He then continued working at Bell throughout his winter and summer breaks. In 1985, Smith earned a chemical engineering degree from Cornell University.
Out of college, Smith lived a fulfilling life as an engineer and eventually became passionate about private equity and investments, leading him to find a way to combine his dual interests of science and business. He went back to school to earn his MBA with honors from Columbia Business School and joined the team at Goldman Sachs in 1994.
After six years at Goldman Sachs, he founded his own investment firm, Vista Equity Partners (Vista). Over the decades, Vista has grown into a leading global investment firm, of which Smith is Chairman and CEO. In recognition of his business prowess, Smith was listed among Forbes’ 100 Greatest Living Business Minds in 2017 and TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020, was honored with the Award of Excellence from the National Association of Investment Companies and was inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in 2019.
Philanthropy: Helping to Create a Better World
Smith’s charitable interests range from the arts and environmental conservation to education and technological development — all with a focus on Black Americans and underserved communities. In 2016, he donated $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was the largest donation made by an individual to the museum at the time. Smith has donated to causes advancing cancer research and education, expanding access to the great outdoors and promoting education reform in underserved communities. In 2017, he signed the Giving Pledge in which he promised to donate more than half of his wealth to charitable organizations during his lifetime.
In 2016, he donated $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was the largest donation made by an individual to the museum at the time.
Expanding Opportunities for Education
Philanthropist Robert F. Smith has been fully committed to his Giving Pledge commitment, using his wealth to expand educational opportunities to those who need it most. Like the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), Smith believes that education can offer the tools and infrastructure to help uplift individuals and entire communities. For example, he has personally donated millions to fund scholarships at his alma maters, Cornell University and Columbia University. Smith, Vista and PowerSchool also partnered together to donate $1.2 million to DonorsChoose, which funds teacher wish lists in the communities serviced by the Southern Communities Initiative.
In 2019, Smith made one of his most notable contributions to further the education of Black Americans in the Southern communities. When making his commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, Smith committed to paying off the student loan debt of the entire graduating class — a gift that totaled over $34 million. He later paid off any debt held by their guardians. This generous act inspired the creation of Student Freedom Initiative.
In 2020, Smith helped create Student Freedom Initiative by matching a $50 million donation from the Fund II Foundation. Student Freedom Initiative, and its income-contingent alternative to some high-interest and private loans, are already helping to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities and their students in every region served by the Southern Communities Initiative.
Smith’s Partnership With Southern Communities Initiative
When Smith first focused on uplifting areas that would have the most impact on the Black American community, his goal was to drive banking infrastructures into underserved areas. Additional partners later joined to help modernize technology at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) through investments from corporations like Cisco.
“When you modernize that infrastructure, you now have broadband. When you have broadband in those HBCUs, in those communities, you can now make that extensible to the businesses,” said Smith of this initial Cisco gift.
Southern Communities Initiative and Smith have also worked with the Grameen America Foundation and partnered with the NAACP in Atlanta, Birmingham and Memphis. Now, Southern Communities Initiative has a system to create 500 to 1,000 small businesses in those communities. Smith has also matched a grant with Regions Bank in Atlanta to support a sustained strategy of financial support and infrastructure creation, rather than a one-time donation.
Learn about Robert F. Smith’s connection with the Southern Communities Initiative by watching the video below.
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