Robert F. Smith grew up in what he called a beloved community – the Five Points section of Denver — one of the oldest and most diverse neighborhoods affectionately known as the “Harlem of the West.”
Smith, chairman and CEO at Vista Equity Partners, explained how his upbringing helped shape his vision and intentional investments in businesses and managers emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion.
The businessman noted that his parents stressed the importance of giving back and supporting his community.
Despite meager means, Smith’s parents routinely donated time and resources to charities, helping others to achieve goals.
As an infant, Smith’s mother took him to the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After that, the young Smith recalled watching each month as his mother sent a $25 check to the United Negro College Fund.
He said his upbringing helped instill in him his unwavering belief that everyone can help make the world better and more equitable.
“I remember a community that cared for its children, and that expression of care came from people who volunteered,” the billionaire businessman and philanthropist stated.
“I saw that importance of community and education brought me an enlightened view on the impact of technology,” Smith said.
Earlier this year, Smith received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Cornell Engineering.
He took the opportunity to announce a $15 million gift for engineering student aid, focusing on assisting undergraduate students who come to Cornell from urban high schools and graduate students who attended historically Black colleges and universities.
In 2019, Smith paid $34 million to settle the loan debt for the nearly 400 students who graduated that spring from Morehouse College.
He asserted that technology remains the course for young people of color.
“What technology has done is it has created a massive opportunity for human ingenuity to create product solutions and services that leverage complete power that’s never been seen,” Smith remarked.
“Our task is to ensure that our people can access that opportunity which means ensuring all our HBCUs have broadband access, the ability to get internships to train and experience what this digital transformation is because it is in every industry on this planet.”
“I think that’s an important distinction we have to drive as a focal point to the leaders in our community, the educators, and government, to ensure they provide equal access for our children and students to access this marvelous transformation.”
While focusing on helping youth today, Smith recalled working at Bell Labs during his summer and winter breaks while completing his chemical engineering degree at Cornell University.
After graduating from Cornell, he worked as an engineer for several top companies, including Kraft General Foods, where he was granted two patents in the U.S. and two more in Europe, before earning his MBA with honors from Columbia Business School.
According to his bio, Smith joined Goldman Sachs in 1994 to “help develop more robust investment banking in technology, starting in New York and later moving to Silicon Valley.”
He became the Co-Head of Enterprise Systems and Storage, assisting massive technology companies like Hewlett Packard, IBM, eBay, and Apple with mergers and acquisitions.
Smith counted as the first person at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco to focus on that specific area of financing.
Recognized by Forbes as one of the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds in 2017 for his business acumen and leadership skills, Smith is celebrating 22 years as the founder of Vista Equity Partners.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” Smith declared.
“Our world is going through a massive transformation that has been characterized as the fourth industrial revolution.
“Every industry on the planet is being digitized, and you need to know how to participate in that either as a software programmer or utilize that digital capacity in whatever you do.”
“If our students don’t have broadband and computing capacity, it will limit their gaining access to this economy.
“We have to get those resources and ensure HBCUs have access and infrastructure to teach and train our students to be a part of this as a producer, not just a consumer, of the technology.”
Smith insisted that the fourth industrial revolution meant significant opportunities for African Americans to be big players in the global economic market.
He said the need for access to the tools of the revolution couldn’t be overstated.
“We need to be uploading software, not just downloading it. If we miss out on this fourth industrial revolution, it will be generations before we can participate again,” Smith proclaimed.
He reiterated his focus on HBCUs.
Smith said HBCUs could create an unending pool of African American talent by providing the necessary technical resources.
“It’s about creating the next generation of Black tech innovators, who will be job creators and wealth creators,” Smith said.