Robert Frederick Smith is the co-founder of SaaS industry-focused private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. According to Forbes, he has a net worth of roughly $5 billion, making him the richest Black man in the United States.
Smith is a self-made billionaire who grew up in a primarily Black, middle class neighborhood in Denver, CO, per the New York Times, citing him as an “ambitious” individual from an early age. After graduating from Cornell, where he majored in chemical engineering, Smith worked at consumer goods giant Kraft, and later received his masters in business administration from Columbia. He began advising companies such as Apple Inc. (AAPL), and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) while at Goldman Sachs.
The Morehouse Pledge
Mr. Smith made a surprise announcement during his commencement speech at Morehouse College this weekend, pledging to pay off the roughly 400 graduates’ debt. Morehouse President David A Thomas told CNN on Monday that the figure will likely be in the tens of millions of dollars.
While Smith’s pledge shocked the crowd, including school administrators, it wasn’t out of character for the private equity manager. Smith has recently taken more a public role, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and making sizable charitable contributions. Alongside Buffett and the Gates, Smith has signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away half of his fortune.
In January, Smith donated $1.5 million to Morehouse to fund student scholarships and build a new park on campus. In 2016, he pledged $50 million to Cornell, to support engineering programs, as well as Black and female engineering students.
Behind Smith’s Fortune
Vista, which manages about $46 billion in assets, per its website, has reaped massive profits by buying and selling software companies. While the privately held company does not publicly report its results, it is widely known to be one of the top performing PE firms in America, with annualized returns over 20% since launching in 2000, per the NYT.
As the bulk of investors focus consumer-facing tech companies, Smith and his partner Brian Sheth have profited off of the lesser-hyped enterprise software space, wherein a transition to the cloud has revolutionized the industry and brought forth many new high growth players.
Smith was named chair of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 2016.