Billionaire Robert F. Smith woke up the crowd at Morehouse College’s commencement ceremony Sunday when he veered off script to share a surprise: He’d be wiping out the student loan debt for the Class of 2019′s nearly 400 graduates.
There was a moment of stunned silence before the grads and their families burst into a joyous applause. Within minutes, praise for Smith spread beyond the Atlanta college and turned into one of the weekend’s most inspiring stories.
The billionaire tech executive and philanthropist has stayed under the radar much of his career, even in Austin, where he lives and works. He rarely grants interviews and is so low-profile that when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture put a call out for major donors in 2013, the museum’s directors wondered, “Who is this Robert F. Smith?” They got their answer in spectacular fashion.
Here are five things you need to know about Robert F. Smith:
A knack for computers led to his fortune
As a junior in high school, Smith landed an internship at Bell Labs — by calling the company every week for five months until he got a slot. Smith tinkered with computers during his summer and winter breaks, and went on to study chemical engineering at Cornell University. He earned an MBA from Columbia University, followed by an investment banking job at Goldman Sachs. After advising billion-dollar mergers for tech companies such as Microsoft and Apple, he left Goldman to found Vista Equity Partners in 2000. He is still the chairman and CEO.
The firm invests in software and data companies and now has more than $46 billion in assets, according to Forbes. As of Monday, Forbes put Smith’s net worth at $5 billion. He is the nation’s richest black man.
Major donor to the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Before the museum opened, Smith pledged a $20 million gift (behind Oprah Winfrey’s $21 million pledge). In an exclusive interview with The Washington Post in 2016, Smith said he had become afraid of escalating racial tensions that threatened the very opportunities once sought by him and his parents. Smith specifically pointed to protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, and the unrest in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s funeral.
“The vision I was sold as a kid is unraveling. I see the little tears in the fabric of society every day. This cannot be,” Smith at the time.
Smith’s donation to the African American Museum was earmarked to digitize photographs, videos and music — and help foster an interactive experience for a 21st-century museum. The gift also allows the museum to act as a hub to archive photographs from other institutions, such as museums, funeral homes and personal collections.
“We wanted it to be a living, interactive museum where we tell our own stories of ourselves our way,” Smith said at the time.
Other major donations
Before Sunday’s graduation speech, Smith had donated $1.5 million to Morehouse for scholarships and a new park. In 2016, he and the Fund II Foundation gifted a combined $50 million to Cornell for its chemical and biomolecular engineering school, and to support black and female engineering students. (Cornell later renamed the school in his honor.)
In 2017, Smith put his name on the Giving Pledge — a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to donate most of their wealth.
A musical upbringing
Smith grew up in a mostly black neighborhood in Denver. Both of his parents had doctorates in education and insisted that the house be filled with music — be it a live show on the family piano or Leontyne Price’s arias on the stereo. Smith brought that early musical influence to his eventual tech career.
“A beautifully written software code is a lyrical concerto,” he told The Post in 2016.
In 2016, Smith became the first African American to be named chairman of the renowned Carnegie Hall in New York City.
An under-the-radar personal life . . . in some ways
Though Smith has largely stayed out of the spotlight, he lives it up in other ways. In 2015, during his nuptials to actress and former Playboy model Hope Dworaczyk on the Amalfi Coast, the wedding singers included John Legend, Seal and Brian McKnight.
His love of music is reflected in the names of two of his sons, Hendrix and Legend — in homage to rock icon Jimi Hendrix and Legend, the famed singer, songwriter and music producer. Smith also reportedly owns one of Elton John’s old pianos.
This story has been updated to clarify the donation gifted to Cornell University.