Who’s the richest black man in America?
As for the richest black overall, no need to ask: Oprah Winfrey, with a net worth of approximately $3 billion, is the country’s richest African-American. But take notice that Robert Frederick Smith, with holdings that total $2.5 billion, has replaced Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson as America’s richest black man.
Smith, an American investor and founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, came into the national spotlight when he donated $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the second-largest donation after Winfrey. His investment firm has over $26 billion in assets, and the Forbes 400 ranks him as America’s 268th richest man.
(FWIW: In 2000, Robert Johnson became the first African-American billionaire after he sold the BET network to Viacom for $3 billion in stock and assumed debt. Since then, sagging Viacom and CBS stock, plus investments in declining real estate, hotels and bank industries, have dragged Johnson’s net worth to just $550 million.)
Blacks would be better off if there were more of us like Smith. He’s an investor who allocates capital with calculated expectations of future financial returns. He is at a profound level of moving money. Investors of Smith’s caliber and portfolio perform thorough research and analysis to make their money make money.
America’s wealthiest black man is a fourth-generation Coloradan. Smith grew up in a background that instilled in him values and ambition. He was born to two parents who were school teachers with doctorates. He grew up in a mostly African-American, middle-class neighborhood, and attended integrated school in Denver. As an infant, his mother carried him at the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Smith isn’t exactly a child of the civil rights movement. As a summer intern with Bell Labs, he developed a reliability test for semiconductors. He trained as an engineer at Cornell University where he earned his degree in chemical engineering. After working at Kraft General Foods, where he earned two United States and two European patents, he attended Columbia Business School where he graduated with honors. From 1994-2000, he joined Goldman Sachs in tech investment banking, first in New York and then in Silicon Valley.
As co-head of Enterprise Systems and Storage, he executed and advised on over $50 billon in merger and acquisition activity with companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, eBay and Yahoo. In 2000, Smith founded Vista Equity Partner, which has cumulative capital commitments exclusively focused on the enterprise software, data and technology-enabled solutions sectors.
Smith has exemplified leadership for minorities for economic empowerment and access to opportunity. He is chairman of Carnegie Hall, chairman of Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and founding director and president of the Fund II Foundation. He also serves on the board of overseers for Columbia Business School, as a member of the Cornell Engineering College Council and as a trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco.
Smith and Winfrey have given more to black cultural efforts than millionaire colleagues Robert Johnson, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. The Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is a way to leverage 21st-century technology to engage and educate regular museum visitors, at-risk youth and technologically inclined millennials. An interactive research space, it is a digital repository of select contributions of materials related to individuals, families and communities of African-Americans. The Center celebrates our nation’s collective experience, from the early 16th-century arrival of the first Africans to the present, in a preservation effort that captures photographs, audiovisual oral histories, and images of artifacts that demonstrate American history.
Smith provides funding to the public through the Fund II Foundation, which makes grants in five areas: 1) Preserving the African-American cultural experience; 2) Safeguarding human dignity; 3) Conserving the environment, promoting outdoor education, and providing people the benefits of the great outdoors; 4) Music education; and 5) Sustaining values of entrepreneurship, empowerment and innovation.
William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via Busxchng@his.com.