Get to know billionaire philanthropist Robert Smith
Billionaire Robert Smith has been in the headlines a lot lately. The 56-year-old chemical engineer and investor has a net worth of more than 5 billion dollars, making him the richest black person in the United States and placing him higher in the earnings category than even Oprah. He’s listed at number 355 on the list of Forbes billionaires for 2019, but he’s a billionaire who believes in giving back. Recently, he’s been in the public eye because he promised to pay off the student loans of more than 300 students at Morehouse College. This promise will cost him tens of millions of dollars, but it’s not really a surprise that he’d be this generous. A look into his background can tell a lot about Smith’s intelligence, generosity, and his drive for excellence and success.
Smith’s roots show strength, determination
Smith’s earliest days show that he started out like a lot of other people. He was the son of educators and was raised in a typical middle-class American family. What sets him apart is his unflinching determination and willingness to work to achieve his goals. While that sounds simple enough, it showed an astonishing strength that he put to good use the rest of his life.
Smith’s focus and determination were evidenced in high school when he decided he wanted to obtain an internship at Bell Labs that was typically reserved for college students. Though he was initially turned down, he didn’t take this response as a final answer. During a commencement speech he gave at American University in 2015, he recounted the story to graduates. He told them, “They said I could apply if I was a junior or senior in college. I said that was fantastic because while I was only a junior in high school, I was getting A’s in computer science and all my advanced math courses so it was like I was in college. Much to my dismay, they disagreed.” Once a day for two weeks he persistently called them to follow up. When a selected intern from MIT failed to show up, Smith got the coveted spot. His persistence helped him win this role and many others ever since.
Early engineering days and a shift to the finance sector
His internship was just the beginning of Smith’s connection to Bell Labs. He worked in chemical engineering there throughout his time at Cornell and then worked for Kraft Foods and Goodyear Tire until his life changed course. He made the decision to gain an MBA from New York’s Columbia University and followed that up at a position at Goldman Sachs. Ultimately, he rose enough in the ranks to lead teams in co-enterprise systems and storage investment banking. Smith advised on $50 billion in deals between the years 1994 and 2000. His experience there almost certainly formed part of his vision for how technology can create wealth and help people throughout the world.
Striking out on his own
Smith knew he could do more and in 2000 he founded the private equity firm Vista Partners. Since it’s beginnings it has focused entirely on software companies and has posted 22% returns. What is even more impressive is that the firm has done this by backing some of the quietest, least flashy companies in Silicon Valley. Those with a smart, innovative idea and business plan have a chance with Smith even if they’re not part of the latest trend. This unconventional approach accounts for much of his company’s success.
Smith’s hiring practices are also atypical. In addition to the usual candidate qualities, Smith looks for their social skills and interest in the arts and humanities. His approach, strategy, work ethic, and smarts have won him accolades and respect from colleagues.
A well-rounded personal life
Smith is the father of five. He had two of these children with his second wife, a fashion editor and former model, and Playboy Playmate Hope Dworaczyk who he married in a huge Italian wedding held just off the Amalfi Coast. He lives with his family in Austin, Texas and also owns homes in New York City and Malibu, California.
Like a lot of other billionaires, Smith doesn’t shy away from donating to political causes. He donated 1.6 million to the Democratic National Committee and made additional donations to candidates including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Chuck Schumer, and Republican Mitt Romney. In his spare time, he’s a huge fan of fly fishing because he loves how it helps him to focus on the moment.
Smith’s recent giving shouldn’t come as a surprise. He demonstrated his commitment to giving back to the community in 2017 when he became the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge. This pledge was founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to encourage the world’s richest individuals to give away half of their wealth in their lifetimes. When he signed the pledge he explained his plans to support causes that engendered opportunities for African Americans that were equal to other groups and would support activity to ensure the planet’s health for future generations. Smith’s also said his wife planned to support causes that helped children.
Smith also had shown other prominent giving opportunities including donating $20 Million as a founding donor of the Washington D.C. based National Museum of African American History And Culture. He has also donated $50 million to his alma mater, Cornell, and is the founder and president of the Fund II Foundation which provides grants to human rights, the environment, and preserving the African American experience. These philanthropic projects and others show his dedication to repay the fruits of his hard-won success by supporting others.