Robert F. Smith
Morehouse College has a special bond with the Student Freedom Initiative. The Initiative grew out of the vision of Robert F. Smith to provide a catalyst for freedom in professional and life choices for students attending Minority Serving Institutions. With the Student Freedom Initiative, qualified Morehouse students in STEM majors will have an income-contingent education finance alternative to compete with the current high cost, fixed payment, debt agreements.
The idea for the Student Freedom Initiative was conceived when Smith famously addressed the graduating class of 2019, announcing during his commencement speech that he had taken on the debt obligations for the group of approximately 400 students. Now, the Student Freedom Initiative will have its start at Morehouse and eight other HBCUs in the fall of 2021.
Morehouse College President, Dr. David A. Thomas, called the Student Freedom Initiative program, “the most significant effort using private philanthropy to address the fundamental issue of college affordability and student debt of which I am aware.”
Aside from his philanthropy, Smith is an engineer, entrepreneur and investor who founded Vista Equity Partners in 2000 and serves as the firm’s Chairman and CEO. He has dedicated much of his life to furthering educational opportunities for Black and minority students. His personal gift of $50 million to help launch the Student Freedom Initiative was one of many that interconnect at the root of Smith’s philanthropic mission to uplift Black communities and provide the education and economic infrastructure to secure a solid future for generations of graduates to come.
The Fund II Foundation, the charitable nonprofit of which Smith is both founding director and President, provided the initial gift of $50 million for the creation of the Student Freedom Initiative. The funding program is strongly aligned with Fund II Foundation’s principle mission, which includes preserving African American cultural heritage and providing educational opportunities to historically underserved communities.
Smith's Support for Morehouse College Students
Smith’s dedication to expanding educational and career opportunities for members of minority groups is the cornerstone of Smith’s long-standing relationship with Morehouse College.
At the very same ceremony in 2019 at which Smith gave a commencement address, he received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. In his speech, Smith encouraged the graduates, calling them his classmates, to take his gift and pay it forward. He set a challenge to Morehouse alumni to use his gift as an example for their own.
During his speech, Smith said, “On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. This is the challenge to you, alumni. This is my class — 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”
Smith paid off the debts of his 2019 classmates that same year, a pledge gift that reached $34 million. After listening to feedback, Smith expanded his plan, extending it to cover debts accrued by the family members of those Morehouse graduates.
Smith’s act set in motion the Student Success Program created by the Morehouse Board of Trustees to liberate Morehouse men and their families and enable them the financial freedom to reinvest in themselves and their communities. Smith’s ties to Morehouse include:
- 2019: $1.5 million from Smith to fund endowed scholarships and a park for outdoor education.
- 2018: Smith honored by Morehouse at the Candle Award in Business and Philanthropy “A Candle in the Dark” Gala to benefit student scholarships.
More About Robert F. Smith
Smith’s passion for education began at a young age. The son of two school teachers holding doctorates in education, he was taught the value of an education, not only as a ladder to achievement, but also as a means of lifting the human spirit. Smith completed an internship at Bell Labs intended for college students while still in high school. He received a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University in 1985 and began his career at Goodyear Tire and Rubber and Kraft General Foods. He then continued his education at Columbia Business School, where he graduated in 1994 with an MBA in finance and marketing.
After the completion of his MBA, Smith was recruited by Goldman Sachs, where he learned to combine his science background with financial acuity. He worked on deals for Apple, Microsoft and other notable tech companies, and then in 2000, he founded Vista Equity Partners. For decades since the firm’s inception, Smith has helped Vista become an industry leader, growing to encompass a portfolio of enterprise software, technology and data-enabled companies worldwide.
Robert F. Smith's Philanthrophic Spirit
Smith’s philanthropic spirit outside of Morehouse reaches into local communities and extends into boardrooms. In 2019, he was honored with both the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy and recognized in 2020 as one of TIME100’s most influential people. He was named as one of Forbes 100 Greatest Living Business Minds.
Since 2016, he has been the Chairman of Carnegie Hall and is the first African American to hold the position. In 2017, he became the first Black American to sign the Giving Pledge. He has been Chairman of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights since 2013. He has received honors including:
- The UNCF President’s Award in 2019,
- Texas Business Hall of Fame inductee in 2019 and
- Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Award in 2016
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