Entrepreneur and social justice advocate Robert F. Smith stepped up as a REFORM Alliance Founding Partner because he is committed to equity and the reform of a biased criminal justice system. Smith also uses his platform to advocate for diversity at the corporate level and encourages technology and financial institutions to invest in communities of color during this time of reinvigorated social movement.
Many know Smith as the mogul who liberated 400 Morehouse College Class of 2019 graduates from student loan debt. Creating regenerative infrastructure to uplift the human spirit is at the heart of Smith’s business and philanthropic ideals. And Smith, with other Black business leaders, has helped rally Black voters and organized initiatives to build lasting generational wealth.
Smith reached out to the public through a Washington Post Op-Ed during the summer of 2020, to empathize as a Black man with community members demanding social justice, but also to offer solutions to systemic inequities felt in Black communities. Smith has advocated for corporate change regarding diversity. He is a member-at-large of the Board of Directors of Business Roundtable, an organization of top corporate executives, which has published reports for policy makers detailing how diversity and economically inclusive policies are an economic necessity.
In an interview with REFORM Alliance Action Fund Co-Chair Van Jones at the virtual Town & Country Philanthropy Summit in 2020, Smith discussed the youth energy of the movement for equality and where he hopes to see change at the leadership level.
“And now we have to get the adults, the corporate owners, the administration, the members of Congress to say: this is not right,” Smith said. “And we have to make real substantive changes and eradicate racism in this country. It is killing this country. It is killing the citizens of this country. And it’s killing who we are in the context of the world.”
Philanthropy and Awards
Leadership regarding community advocacy is at the heart of Smith’s business and philanthropic platforms. According to Smith, it was at Morehouse in 2019 that the idea for a new pathway to finance minority education and opportunity was sparked. And in 2020, Smith saw the launch of Student Freedom Initiative, which he aided with $50 million in start-up funds to match a grant from the Fund II Foundation which provided the initial $50 million in funding. In fall 2021 qualified STEM students at 9 HBCUs will find academic support, internship access and funding for their career and personal goals.
Other notable personal gifts from Smith include: $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, $20 million in 2016 to Cornell University’s College of Engineering along with $10 million for STEM scholarships for African American and women students with an additional $15 million in 2022.
It’s this type of innovative giving that has earned Smith the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Award, the United Nergo College Fund (UNCF) President’s Award and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Robert F. Kennedy Prize, among others. Some of Smith’s honors also include: the Morehouse Candle Award in Business and Philanthropy, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Award, the Reginald F. Lewis Achievement Award, the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Robert Toigo Foundation and the Ripple of Hope Award from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
Smith is founding director and President of Fund II Foundation, a charitable organization, which grants funds to projects and programs including the preservation of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s homes by the National Park Foundation and The UNCF STEM Scholars Program. Smith’s philanthropy was instilled in him by his parents. This was reinforced when Smith was inducted to the Alpha Phi Alpha (APA) Fraternity, Inc. at Cornell University, where the fraternity was founded in 1907. APA, the first African-American, intercollegiate Greek-lettered fraternity, holds a storied membership with a history of social justice including: Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall, and W.E.B. Dubois.
Early Life and Career
Smith became a chemical engineer because he wanted to create something in this world that was entirely new. And he accomplished it. The child who grew up in metropolitan Denver, the son of educators, graduated from Cornell University as a chemical engineer swiftly earning four registered patents with colleagues.
Then, Smith rose to a new opportunity: the world of finance. He graduated with honors from Columbia Business School, and though he was older than his classmates and one of only a few minorities in the industry, he found his path and made his mark at Goldman Sachs. There he worked with Silicon Valley industry leaders before leaving to found Vista Equity Partners in 2000. In addition to being the company Founder, Smith is Chairman and CEO of the private investment firm which has grown over twenty years to become a global leader in enterprise software and technology finance.
Smith’s unique qualifications, his ideas and ideals, as well as his ability to scale the cultural zeitgeist on technology and diversity into community infrastructure, saw Smith named to Forbes list of 100 Greatest Living Business Minds, included in the TIME100 most influential people list and inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame.