Robert F. Smith, HBUs & Student Freedom Initiative

Robert F. Smith, the philanthropist and education advocate, is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners.

Philanthropist and entrepreneur Robert F. Smith, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners is a key figure in the creation of Student Freedom Initiative. Smith wanted to find a way to liberate minority students from the excessive debt burdens limiting their professional abilities. Following Smith’s now legendary Morehouse College Class of 2019 commencement address which freed 400 students from student loan debt, he sought for a broad solution to the problem of student debt.

Keith B. Shoates, Executive Director of Student Freedom Initiative said at the program launch that, “HBCUs are ideal partners as we continue to build and refine a program that is student-centered, evidence-based, and holistic.”

An advocate for equity in boardrooms and classrooms, Smith consulted education and finance experts for what is now known as Student Freedom Initiative, an income-contingent education finance alternative. The program offers students a way to reinvest in their futures and build capital, as opposed to current options which can consume up to 60% of African American post-collegiate earnings.

Smith: Education and Career

Paying over $34 million in student loans for students and families of Morehouse 2019 classmates was not Smith’s first foray into philanthropy tied to education, nor his last. Smith's parents, both of whom earned doctorates in education, supported and nurtured Smith’s young talent. And Smith acknowledges an early push for excellence at a desegregated school in Denver helped challenge him to achieve and expand the limits of his imagination. He hopes to extend the same opportunity to others. Smith received the Ripple of Hope Award from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights because of his continuing commitment to equity and social change. 

His experience during an internship at Bell Labs while still in high school, helped shape Smith’s advocacy for internships and supportive connections between educational institutions and businesses. Vista, for example, participates in internX, a program that guides and places traditionally disenfranchised students in work experiences to help them explore their options and make the necessary connections to increase the likelihood of post-collegiate opportunities. Student Freedom Initiative is also meant to be part of this infrastructure of support, by providing academic and internship guidance.

Smith’s college career began with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University in 1985. Following graduation Smith was hired at Goodyear Tire and Rubber in 1986. He left Goodyear for Kraft General Foods, where during his employment from 1990 to 1994, Smith developed four patents. Smith then attended Columbia University’s Columbia Business School, graduating with honors in 1994. Smith maintains relationships with his alma maters, serving on Columbia Business School’s Board of Overseers and as a member of the Cornell Engineering College Council.

Smith’s career in finance began at Goldman Sachs in 1994. He leveraged deals with some of the early Silicon Valley leaders, such as Apple and Microsoft, before Smith launched Vista Equity Partners in 2000. Smith was freed to help fully implement the “elegant solutions for complex problems,” for which Smith and Vista, a financial technology leader, are well known. Over the last two decades Vista has become a global leader in finding and supporting enterprise software, technology and data-driven companies.

Smith’s success and foresight into the future of finance was recognized by Forbes, who named Smith in its list of the Greatest Living Business Minds. Smith’s continued achievements have prompted him to find ways to bring others on the journey to future achievement. In an interview with BlackNorth Initiative Smith said there is no amount of money to compare with “[...] the joy of liberating the human spirit.” 

Philanthropy at the Heart of Smith’s Mission

His family's history of giving, particularly to organizations such as the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), led to the formation of Smith’s personal philosophy of philanthropy. Smith recognized not only the importance of providing educational opportunities for Black and minority students, but also a pipeline of support for talent to take root. For true equity, an economic infrastructure must be in place to ensure future generations have a place at the table. To realize this, Smith personally gifted $50 million to match funds provided by the Fund II Foundation to kickstart Student Freedom Initiative

STEM education is of particular importance to Smith, as he credits his own STEM training in his success as a business leader. Cornell University’s Engineering School, renamed in honor of Smith’s accomplishments, received $20 million and an additional $10 million specifically for minority scholarships for STEM focused students. And to increase diversity at Columbia University, Smith provided a gift of $15 to expand the Harlem-based Manhattanville campus. 

His history of philanthropy and business acuity saw Smith recognized as one of Time Magazine’s TIME100 most influential people of 2020. Even before taking the Giving Pledge in 2017, Smith was active in philanthropic endeavours with  the Fund II Foundation, a charitable nonprofit. Fund II Foundation was created to support initiatives that celebrate history, preserve African American culture, uplift traditionally disenfranchised communities by providing access to music, the outdoors and education. 

Honors and Awards

In 2020 Smith received Cornell Engineering’s Distinguished Alumni Award and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Robert F. Kennedy Prize. In 2019 he was honored with the Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Award, the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, UNCF’s President’s Award and was inducted into Texas Business Hall of Fame. In 2018, among other honors, Smith received the Morehouse Candle Award in Business and Philanthropy. In 2017, the year Smith became the first Black American to sign the Giving Pledge, he received the Columbia University BBSA Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2016, the year Smith became the first African American to be Chairman of Carnegie Hall, he also received the Jackie Robinson Foundation ROBIE Achievement in Industry Award and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Award. Smith has been a Carnegie Hall Trustee since 2013. He has been a Trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco since 2008.

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