Austin billionaire who paid off students’ debt has history of giving back

Austin
Student Debt Pledge_1558295877027

Robert F. Smith, left, laughs with David Thomas, center, and actress Angela Bassett at Morehouse College on Sunday, May 19, 2019, in Atlanta. Smith, a billionaire technology investor and philanthropist, said he will provide grants to wipe out the student debt of the entire graduating class at Morehouse College – an estimated $40 million. Smith, […]

AUSTIN (KXAN) — People around the country have been awestruck by billionaire Robert F. Smith’s announcement Sunday that he would pay off the student loans of 400 students in the entire 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College, a gift estimated to total around 40 million dollars. 

Smith was the commencement speaker at Morehouse College, a private, all-male, historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia

Smith is the Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners and works out of Austin with a focus on investing in software companies. According to Forbes, his real-time net worth is currently 5 billion dollars. He has a residence in Austin and his Twitter location lists him in Austin as well. 

Smith was born in Colorado and grew up understanding the power of higher education. His parents had Ph.D.’s and he got his degree at Cornell University in Engineering, then worked at Kraft General Foods, and after that, he received his MBA from Columbia Business School. 

 A January report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that Smith donated $1.5 million to Morehouse at that time to be used for scholarships and a new park on campus. 

He also is the founding director and president of the Fund II Foundation, which works to preserve the African American experience and to use philanthropy in driving social change. He is a chairman, a board member, and a trustee in influential organizations and community groups all over the country. 

In 2016, Smith gave 20 million dollars to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is among the largest gifts to the museum by an individual. The gift went toward digitizing resources in the museum and community outreach. 

Smith and his wife Hope D. Smith have been involved in offering scholarship opportunities and support for youth in foster care through the Family Fellowship, offering each student selected up to $90,000 and guidance. 

Austin impacts

Smith has touched the Austin community in many different ways. 

On November 12, 2018, he spoke at UT Austin’s McCombs School of Business in a “fireside chat” with Britt Harris, the Chief Investment Officer of the University of Texas Investment Management Company. At that talk, Smith spoke about private equity and his company’s investment strategy of focusing on software. 

During the talk, Smith said he tells his kids he will leave them three things.

“And none of them is money,” he laughed. 

“But the one that’s most important is the concept of you are enough, you are enough to create your own life, you don’t necessarily need anyone’s perspective on you to become who you want to become,” Smith said. 

He also talked to the audience about the value of his initial internship at Bell Labs back in 1979 back when he was 17 and a junior in high school. At the time, Bell didn’t take interns until they were juniors or seniors in college, but he called the company each week for five months, and eventually, they offered him the internship when an applicant from MIT dropped out. Smith credits that internship for opening his eyes to the possibility of being an engineer. 

Professor John Sibley Butler, the director of the Jon Brumley Venture Labs at McCombs School of Business, attended Smith’s talk at UT and said hello to Smith briefly then. 

“Robert is a very, very busy person, so I wouldn’t say that we play golf together, but certainly everybody knows of Robert and knows that he’s doing great things,” Butler said. 

Butler first heard of Smith through what he calls the “ecosystem” — his word for the community of people in Austin who understand “how to create companies, how we create jobs, and how we do great things.”

Butler also served for ten years on the Morehouse Research Institute board helping to bring more grants and research dollars to Morehouse College. 

After Smith’s announced donation to Morehouse Sunday, Butler said, “my phone was ringing off the hook, everyone was jumping up and clapping, ‘what a great thing to do!’ and to do it at Morehouse was very, very special.”

Butler said that in his decades of working in higher education, debt has become a more visible and serious problem for students in recent years. 

“The greatest thing that a person can do, a family can do, is give their children a debt-free education and what Robert did, he provided them a debt-free education, and he asked them to pay it forward as they moved forward,” Butler said of Smith’s donation to the Morehouse graduates. 

In 2014, Smith was the commencement speaker for Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black university in Austin. At that time, Smith was presented an honorary doctor of humane letters degree by Huston-Tillotson. 

“One of the greatest things about being an American, is the opportunity to take risks,” Smith told graduates in Austin back then. 

Smith has also been involved with many organizations in Austin. 

Heidi Anderson, the executive director of the Trail Foundation in Austin, said Smith was an early, lead donor for the foundation’s trail bridge at Congress Avenue project. 

Smith gifted 1.25 million dollars to the Trail Foundation, the largest gift they’ve received to date. 

“He’s just been incredibly generous with us and patient as well,” Anderson said, noting that Smith has a love for Austin’s hike and bike trail. 

Anderson heard that Morehouse graduates had their debt paid off by a commencement speaker when her husband read the report to her aloud. 

Without knowing who was behind the donation, she immediately guessed that Smtih was the donor. 

“I think it’s really a game-changing way to empower lives and to brighten the future,” Anderson said of Smith’s Morehouse donation. “He’s changing lives with this gift.”

James Russell, Executive Director of Austin’s Trail of Lights Foundation, explained that ever since the Trail of Lights tradition was “resurrected” in 2012, Smith and Vista Equity have been partners with the Trail of Lights.

“It’s a much bigger thing with him,” Russell said of Smith, “his philanthropy is very diverse and it’s very inclusive. The financial aspect of it is the symptom of the overall good that he tries to live by.” 

Russell said that Smith’s donation to the Morehouse students is completely in line with his character. 

“Not everyone has 40 million dollars to pay off debt, but the lesson doesn’t change and that’s leadership,” Russell said, adding that he sees Smith’s donation as a challenge to everyone to see what they can do in their own lives to better their communities — whether it’s volunteering for a cause or donating a can of soup. 

“We’re all lucky, not just Austin to have someone like Robert Smith,” Russell said.  

“This is something that on a personal level I really appreciate, he does it because it’s the right thing to do and that’s because it’s what he wants to do and not for the recognition of doing it,” Russell continued. “That’s a very humbling lesson these days that I think a lot of people could benefit from.” 

KXAN reached out to Smith’s team for this report, they responded saying they are “elated by the impact this [Morehouse] gift will have.” Smith won’t be doing interviews on the donation but a spokesperson said he is “thrilled to invest in these young people and their future.”

KXAN is a sponsor of the Trail of Lights. 

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