How Robert F. Smith Quietly Became the Richest Black Person in America
While our eyes were glued on Oprah, Robert F. Smith quietly started a business and in just 20 years grew his wealth to billionaire status.
Before billionaire Robert F. Smith stunned the crowd at Morehouse College’s commencement ceremony in May, few people knew who he was. The billionaire tech executive and philanthropist has stayed under the radar much of his career, even in Austin, TX, 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 reportedly wondered, “Who is this Robert F. Smith?” Based on the size of his donation to the museum and his recent donation to the Morehouse class, a lot more people know his name, however there’s a lot more to know about Smith.
Smith grew up in a mostly Black middle-class neighborhood in Denver, CO, in a middle-class family. Both of his parents were PhDs in education, and he was apparently ambitious at an early age. He applied for an internship at Bell Labs in high school, but was told he was too young. Mr. Smith called every Monday for five months and finally got the position.
He attended Cornell, where he studied chemical engineering, then took a job at Kraft General Foods. He earned an MBA from Columbia, and from 1994-2000 worked for Goldman Sachs in its technology investing sector, where he oversaw $50 billion worth of merger deals and acquisitions for companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, eBay and Yahoo.
MILLIONS TO BILLIONS
In 2000, Smith founded Vista Equity Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm focused on buying and selling technology and software companies.
By the age of 35, Smith had already made his first million, and before he was 55, he became a billionaire, according to a profile by The Washington Post.
According to Forbes, Vista Equity is one of the best-performing private equity firms, with $46 billion in capital committed to companies specializing in data.
In 2019, Smith, who has a net worth of $5 billion, was #355 on the Forbes Billionaires List. He is the richest Black person in the United States, topping Oprah and the Carters.
Before the Morehouse commencement, Smith donated $1.5 million to Morehouse College for scholarships and the development of a new park.
In 2016, he pledged $50 million to Cornell University to support its chemical and biomolecular engineering school, as well as scholarships for Black and female engineering students.
As one of the founding donors of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he committed $20 million (behind Oprah Winfrey’s $21 million pledge) to the museum before it opened. Smith’s donation to the 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.
In 2017, he became the first and only Black person to sign the Giving Pledge, an initiative created by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. The Giving Pledge challenges the wealthiest people in the country to give away at least half of their money to charity.
"I will never forget that my path was paved by my parents, grandparents, and generations of African Americans whose names I will never know," Smith wrote in an essay for the Giving Pledge. "Their struggles, their courage, and their progress allowed me to strive and achieve. My story would only be possible in America, and it is incumbent on all of us to pay this inheritance forward."
“We wanted it to be a living, interactive museum where we tell our own stories of ourselves our way,” Smith said at the time.
Smith is also the founder and president of the Fund II Foundation, which provides grants for causes such as human rights, the environment, music education and "preserving the African American experience."
In 2015, Smith married model and former Playboy Playmate of the Year Hope Dworaczyk on Italy's Amalfi Coast. Artists John Legend, Seal and Brian McKnight performed during the extravagant ceremony. Dworaczyk and Smith have two children together, while Smith has three other children from a previous marriage. He named two of his sons Hendrix and Legend, after Jimi Hendrix and John Legend.
Smith has a passion for music and a flamboyant side as well. In 2016, he was named chairman of the board of Carnegie Hall, the nation’s most prestigious concert stage. He bought and restored a storied resort, Lincoln Hills, outside Denver, where Black jazz musicians like Duke Ellington once played. And he has founded programs to support music education and minority entrepreneurship in Austin, where he lives, and Chicago, where Vista has an office.