Last year, I wrote about the emerging philanthropy of billionaire Robert F. Smith, the only African-American man on the 2015 Forbes 400 list, and the richest black American not named Oprah Winfrey. Armed with a Cornell chemical engineering degree and a Columbia MBA, Smith worked at Goldman Sachs before co-founding Vista Equity Partners, a private equity fund that manages equity capital commitments of over $14 billion.
I discussed some signs of Smith's emerging philanthropy through his Zolimax Foundation, an under-the-radar (and possibly now defunct) vehicle that listed several major projects it supported. One of these efforts was Lincoln Hills Experience, "a youth empowerment program" on a ranch and fly fishing preserve outside of Denver. Lincoln Hills has strong historic roots and was frequented by the likes of Duke Ellington in his day. In my previous piece, I also mentioned that music education, minority entrepreneurship, and racial equity were some of Smith's other interests and with $2.5 billion to his name as of 2015, Smith was someone to keep an eye on for greater giving down the line.
Well, now comes news that Smith and his Fund II Foundation have given $50 million to establish an endowment for the Cornell University School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The school will use the bulk of the funds for "scholarship and fellowship support for groups traditionally underrepresented in engineering and technology — particularly African-American and female students." The school will also create a fund for diversity initiatives in engineering and establish the Robert Frederick Smith Tech Scholars Program. As a result of this philanthropy the school will be renamed the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell.
There's a lot worth talking about here, including Smith's recently minted Fund II Foundation, which lists a small staff and offers a broader picture of the 53 year old's giving. But before we talk about Fund II, let's first focus on his big gift to his alma mater in Ithaca.
Diversity in STEM is a big issue which we report on often. Funders on this case include big corporations like Intel and Apple, as well as large foundations and individual donors. One couple that's been working this issue from both a gender and race perspective is Mitch and Freada Kapor Klein. I've also written about wealthy women like Anne Welsh McNulty and Suzanne Nora Johnson, some of whose philanthropy involves diversifying STEM.
What we haven't seen as often, though, is an African-American with the combination of enormous wealth and personal experiences to put large sums of money behind this issue. Cornell is already calling Smith's gift one of the largest ever from an African-American philanthropist to an institution of higher learning. As Smith, chairman of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, puts it, "Along my career I have become increasingly concerned by the lack of diversity across the engineering and tech disciplines. My direct intention here is to work directly with Cornell Tech and Cornell Engineering, in New York City and in Ithaca, to create direct on-ramps for African-Americans and young women to enter tech so that they can help lead us into the fourth industrial revolution."
Smith's Fund II Foundation has focused on five major areas including "preserving the cultural richness of the African-American experience for future generations," "conserving the environment," "affording music education," and "sustaining the American values of entrepreneurship, empowerment, innovation and security." So far, these ideas have translated into support of outfits such as Unlikely Heroes (UH), which supports safe homes and restoration to child victims of sex slavery around the globe, the Opportunity Network (OppNet), which "levels the playing field for low-income high school and college students by providing access to college and career success," and Together We Rise's Family Fellowship Program, which "supports former foster youth in their efforts to gain a university, community college or trade school education."
Fund II Foundation's staff includes several directors, a program director, and several consultants. One director, Anthony Spikes, is the managing principal and CEO of Sapphire Hill Global Partners, a global-macro investment firm. This tracks with some of the global development philanthropy with which Smith has been involved.
Interested grantseekers can apply for a Fund II Foundation grant by starting here. The foundation does state that it is "most effective when we are working together with potential partners to achieve the shared impact we all desire." As for Smith, it's safe to say that his philanthropy has kicked off in earnest and we'll have to see what his next philanthropic move is.