By now America’s wealthiest Black billionaire, Robert F. Smith, is accustomed to being recognized for his business acumen and leadership skills. The investor made his fortune through Vista Equity Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm that specializes in backing software and tech-related startups. The company has amassed more than $52 billion in total investments, boasting a portfolio of more than 60 companies that collectively employ more than 70,000 people. Early in his career, Smith worked an investment banking job at Goldman Sachs for several years, where he worked on tech mergers and acquisitions for brands such as Apple, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, eBay, and Yahoo. In 2020, when Time Magazine recognized Smith in the TIME100 list of the most influential people for that year, it was not only for his success with Vista, but for his philanthropic vision. The first Black American to sign the Giving Pledge, Smith made history in 2017 when he donated $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was the largest donation by an individual to the museum in its history. Two years later, he stunned Morehouse College graduates during his commencement speech by announcing a commitment to pay off all student loan debt for the entire class—a $34 million gift.
And yet, despite all of his success, Smith still manages to stay humble, notably acknowledging the influence of his college days at Cornell University. Born and raised in Denver, Colorado, Smith entered Cornell in 1981. There, he became a brother of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity while majoring in chemical engineering. This work culminated in 1985 when the future billionaire received his bachelor's degree from the university. “I have had the privilege of being a Cornell graduate with a degree in engineering,” Smith said in a 2016 statement. “I credit much of my career success to being an engineer by training. Engineers solve problems and fix things.”
Considering Smith's penchant for philanthropy, it comes as no surprise that he's become one of his alma mater's most generous benefactors in recent years. In May 2022, Cornell announced a $15 million donation from Smith that will provide financial aid to engineering students from historically underrepresented communities. This comes on the heels of a $50 million commitment from Smith to support chemical and biomolecular engineering and African-American and female students at Cornell University’s College of Engineering. The university reciprocated the generosity by renaming the School to the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell. Then, in 2020, Smith was the recipient of Cornell Engineering’s Distinguished Alumni award, which recognizes alumni who have broken traditional boundaries to transform society, and whose professional accomplishments bring distinction to the college.