Now the Richest Black American, He's Also One of America's Biggest Philanthropists

Among other causes, Robert F. Smith gave nearly $39 million to the national park foundation in 2016. photo: A.Hornung/shutterstock

Among other causes, Robert F. Smith gave nearly $39 million to the national park foundation in 2016. photo: A.Hornung/shutterstock

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 8, 2018.

Throughout most of my (still relatively) young writer's lifetime, Oprah Winfrey loomed large as the pinnacle of black American financial success. The 64-year-old Oprah recently denied presidential bid rumors on the heels of a rousing speech, and stars in the new Disney film A Wrinkle in Time, opening this week. Oprah has been a billionaire for years now, thanks to an extraordinary career in media and entertainment. Other entertainers and athletes like Michael Jordan and Jay Z, to name a couple, are also in the mix of mega-wealthy African-Americans. 

In the last few years, I've kept an eye on private equity billionaire Robert F. Smith, the 55-year-old Cornell and Columbia grad. Smith is a former Goldman guy who struck out on his own as founder of Vista Equity Partners along with his co-founder Brian Sheth in 2000. In recent years, Forbes pegged Smith's net worth at $2.5 billion. That's more than Michael Jordan, but less than Oprah. Now, the 2018 Forbes World's Richest People list is out, and Smith's wealth has soared to $4.4 billion, making him the richest black American. 

Smith's philanthropy has been growing, too, as we've been reporting for a few years, now. His giving really kicked into high gear in 2016 when he announced a $50 million gift to Cornell, establishing a fellowship program and supporting black and female students at Cornell’s College of Engineering. Smith also announced that he would foot the education bill for 24 Chibok girls, including the 21 who were released by Boko Haram.


In addition to personal contributions, Smith moves philanthropy through his Fund II Foundation, which he established in 2014. The foundation focuses on areas like human rights, music education and "preserving the African-American experience." Smith is a major donor to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, giving a personal donation of $20 million and supporting a digitization program to preserve the family histories of black Americans as well as community outreach.

In 2016, the foundation held some $143 million in assets and gave away some $160 million that fiscal year.

Whoa. That's some serious money, putting Smith's giving up there among the biggest philanthropists in the U.S. Somehow, though, he's managed to fly largely below the radar.  

Where is Smith's money going these days? Well, apart from his alma mater Cornell, and his big Smithsonian gift, Fund II Foundation made a $27 million donation to Susan G. Komen for breast cancer research. Last month, Smith gave $2.5 million to the Prostate Cancer Foundation to focus research on African-American men and aid veterans who are battling prostate cancer.

It's worth noting that health isn't an explicit grantmaking category of the foundation, but shows that Smith's philanthropic interests are still forming. Additionally, when an issue like cancer intersects with interests like supporting the black community, Smith may be primed to step up. Indeed, Smith's gift to the Prostate Cancer Foundation is the largest donation ever made specifically targeting research and care for African-American men. This population is 73 percent more likely to develop prostate cancer than any other race or ethnicity.  

As Smith puts it, "I am delighted to support the lifesaving work of accelerating promising medical research to serve our nation's veterans who urgently need better treatments and cures and access to cutting-edge precision oncology... With these resources, we will do right by those brave veterans who served our country, and we will change the odds for millions of African-American men who should be surviving prostate cancer."

Fund II Foundation also made a $9.3 million donation to Global Wildlife Conservation, whose board business partner Brian Sheth chairs. The Sangreal Foundation of Sheth and his wife Adria is laser-focused on conservation, and Fund II states that it is "dedicated to protecting the environment, increasing knowledge of nature, expanding access to parks, and connecting young people to beneficial outdoor activities." 

Other major contributions by the Fund II Foundation in recent years include a total of $40 million to the United Negro College Fund; a $3 million gift to NPower, a Brooklyn-headquartered organization that creates "pathways to economic prosperity by launching digital careers for military veterans and young adults from underserved communities"; $3 million to Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens; and $1 million to the Edward M. Kennedy Museum.

Oh, and Fund II Foundation directed nearly $39 million to the National Park Foundation in 2016, meaning that Smith is one of the largest private donors to support America's national parks. All told, Fund II Foundation has given away at least $200 million in its short existence. (We still don't have 2017 numbers.) This is no doubt only the beginning, because Smith is also the first African-American to sign the Giving Pledge.

Of the signing, Smith said, “I will never forget that my path was paved by my parents, grandparents and generations of African-Americans whose names I will never know... We will only grasp the staggering potential of our time if we create onramps that empower ALL people to participate, regardless of background, country of origin, religious practice, gender, or color of skin.”

Smith and his Fund II Foundation are just getting started, but it's clear that Smith intends on giving away the majority of his wealth—and maybe sooner rather than later.