Billionaire Robert F. Smith woke the crowd at the launch ceremony of Morehouse College on Sunday when he dropped the scenario to share a surprise: he would wipe out the student loan debt of the 2019 promotion, nearly 400 graduates.
There was a moment of stunned silence before the graduates and their families burst into cheerful applause. Within minutes, the praise for Smith spread beyond Atlanta College and became one of the most inspiring stories.
The billionaire and tech technician and philanthropist has spent much of his career under the radar, even in Austin, where he lives and works. He seldom gives interviews and is so discreet that when the Smithsonian's National Museum of African History and Culture launched a call for proposals to major donors, museum directors wondered: "Who is this Robert F. Smith? " answer dramatically.
Here are five things to know about Robert F. Smith:
A talent for computers leads to his fortune
As a high school junior, Smith did an internship at Bell Labs – calling the company every week for five months, until he had a place. Smith tinkered with computers during his summer and winter breaks and then studied chemical engineering at Cornell University. He earned an MBA from Columbia University, followed by an investment banking job at Goldman Sachs. After advising billion-dollar mergers for technology companies such as Microsoft and Apple, he left Goldman to found Vista Equity Partners in 2000. He is still president and chief executive officer.
The company invests in software and data companies and has assets of more than $ 46 billion, according to Forbes. Forbes estimated Smith's net worth at $ 5 billion as of Monday. He is the richest black man in the nation.
Senior Donor at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Prior to the opening of the museum, Smith pledged a $ 20 million donation (behind Oprah Winfrey's $ 21 million promise). In an exclusive interview with The Post in 2016, Smith said he was afraid of escalating racial tensions that threatened the same opportunities once sought by him and his parents. Smith specifically spoke of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal murder of Michael Brown in 2014 and the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's funeral in Baltimore.
"The vision that was sold to me when I was a child is undone. I see every day the little tears in the fabric of society. It can not be, "Smith told The Post.
Smith's donation to the African American Museum was intended to digitize photographs, videos and music – and to foster an interactive experience for a 21st century museum. The gift also allows the museum to serve as a repository for photographs of other institutions, such as museums, funeral homes and personal collections.
"We wanted it to be a living and interactive museum, in which we tell our own story in our own way," Smith said at the time.
Other important donations
Prior to Sunday's graduation speech, Smith donated $ 1.5 million to Morehouse for scholarships and a new park. In 2016, Smith and the Fund II Foundation together donated $ 50 million to Cornell University for its School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and support for Black and Female Engineering Students. (Cornell renamed the school after Smith.)
In 2017, Smith also put his name on Giving Pledge, a commitment by individuals and wealthier families around the world to donate most of their wealth.
A musical education
Smith grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Denver. Both parents had a doctorate in education and insisted that the house be filled with music, be it a live show on his piano or tunes from Leontyne Price in the hi-fi system. Smith brought this early musical influence to his future career in technology.
"A beautifully written software code is a lyric concerto," he told the Washington Post in 2016.
Smith was also the first African-American to be named president of Carnegie Hall in New York in 2016.
A personal life under the radar. . . in some ways
Although Smith has largely stayed away from the scene, he does it differently. In 2015, at his wedding with actress and former Playboy model Dworaczyk Dynasty on the Amalfi Coast, the wedding singers included John Legend, Seal and Brian McKnight.
His love of music is reflected in the names of two of his sons, Hendrix and Legend, a tribute to musicians Jimi Hendrix and John Legend.
Smith would own one of Elton John's old pianos.
This story has been updated to clarify the donation made to Cornell University.