Billionaire Robert F. Smith is chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a leading private equity firm focused on investing in software and technology-enabled businesses. Vista has over $14 billion in cumulative capital commitments. The son of Ph.Ds, Smith convinced Bell Labs to give him an internship when he was still at his Denver high school. Smith subsequently earned a chemical engineering degree from Cornell and an MBA from Columbia. He worked in M&A at Goldman Sachs before co-founding Vista in 2000. Smith is now on the Forbes billionaire list and is worth $2.5 billion as of this writing—which makes him, by the way, the second richest African-American behind Oprah.
Let's talk about that last point for a moment and name the elephant in the room: I've been writing about some of the nation's biggest finance winners and their giving for more than a year now, and all of them have been white and male. Since Inside Philanthropy launched its Glitzy Giving vertical, we've examined the philanthropy of wealthy black entertainers such as Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Beyonce, and as a black writer, I couldn't help but notice the divide. While the country's most prominent entertainers are earning more than ever before, their wealth pales in comparison to the kind of wealth that can be amassed in finance, which then can be harnessed for philanthropy.
All of this is to say that Smith and his wealth are a big deal, and just as when I previously profiled billionaire CEO Judy Faulkner, it's worth thinking about trailblazing women and people of color who've made it to the top of the corporate world, and their potential impact in this new era of philanthropy.
Smith is still rather young at 52, but he's already been involved in philanthropy and founded the Zoelimax Foundation. The foundation's website is only a single page, and it's unclear how to get in touch with the outfit or what guidelines it has for grantseekers. Zoelimax states that it is "committed to supporting projects and entities which enable people, globally, to truly become their best selves. These gaps relate to education but can also be found in related issues of hunger, gender equality or the physical infrastructure necessary to achieve an education goal."
The foundation currently has several major projects it is supporting, including Lincoln Hills Experience, "a youth empowerment program" on a ranch and fly fishing preserve outside of Denver. As a youth, Smith and his family used to vacation in Lincoln Hills, which was once one of the few resorts where African-Americans could rent or buy vacation cabins; it was frequented by the likes of Duke Ellington and Zora Neale Hurston.
Smith, through his foundation, has also supported Teach With Africa, a "nonprofit organization empowering students and teachers in a reciprocal exchange of teaching and learning in Africa and the United States," and Viviendas Leon, which "works to alleviate rural poverty in Nicaragua and improve understanding through cultural exchange, service learning and travel." The Zoelimax Foundation is currently funding the construction of a community center and also supports students through Viviendas Leon. Zoelimax has also supported Koiyaki Guiding School, which "provides local Massai youth with education in the tourism industry and in eco-friendly land management." Other philanthropy by Smith has involved programs supporting music education and minority entrepreneurship in Austin, where he lives, and in Chicago, where Vista has offices.
It's worth mentioning that Smith also sits on the board of Carnegie Hall, is the chairman of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and is a trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco. Smith also held a leadership role in the MLK Memorial Project in Washington, D.C.
Smith recently gave the commencement address at American University, where he recalls his grandfather attending Obama's inauguration after, years prior, being one of the few blacks at FDR's inauguration. Smith also said, "We are only bound by the limits of our own conviction... we can transcend the script of a pre-defined story, and pave the way for the future that we design. We just need to tap that power, that conviction, that determination within us.”
Smith's wealth and unique story definitely make him someone to watch in philanthropy down the line.