Dillard University | Robert F. Smith




Headshot of entrepreneur and philanthropist Robert F. Smith




Robert F. Smith and Student Freedom Initiative


When businessman and philanthropist Robert F. Smith stepped up to the microphone to deliver the commencement speech for the class of 2019 at Morehouse College, little did those 400 classmates know how their lives were about to change. In his speech, Smith announced, “On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. This is the challenge to you, alumni. This is my class — 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.” Smith knew that he had made major changes in 400 students’ lives, as well as those of their families who had also taken out more than $34 million dollars worth of loans to support their child’s education. But he also knew he could work to make even more lasting, generational changes.  


Since students of color are more likely to take out student loans to pay for their college education, they are also more likely to graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, if not more. This debt, and the need to repay it in large amounts each month no matter their salary, can factor into where they later choose to work, live, and how they begin their new careers. Smith wanted to create a new way to address financing a valuable college education. After years of planning, Student Freedom Initiative came to life.  


With a $50 million dollar donation from Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is also founding director and President, alongside a $50 million personal gift from Smith himself, Student Freedom Initiative took off. In the fall of 2021, the program launched at nine HBCUs — and it’s continued to grow. Available to Dillard University students, Student Freedom Initiative wants to create more freedom for the students’ professional and life choices. To do this, they offer academic support, career assistance and a financing alternative, currently available to eligible STEM students in their junior and senior years. The hope is that by limiting the high-interest loans that a student has to take out to fund their education’s completion, they can graduate knowing that they can make big choices to fuel their career dreams. 



Smith’s Background, Education and Career 


Robert F. Smith is the child of two educators. Raised in Denver, Colorado, his family stressed education as well as supporting their community. This included both his local, African American neighbors in Denver, as well as the national community. His mother made sure that the family sent a $25 check to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) every month, no matter what. They also supported community programs to enhance education for members of the Black community in Denver, like advocating for Head Start education and starting civic organizations for Black residents in the city that was racially divided in the 1960s just like most of America. 


Smith found his purpose in his studies, and found mentors in his community where the only Black engineer he knew was actually a “only a draftsman,” but still so valuable as an inspiration for something he could aspire to become. He went on to talk his way, through sheer persistence, into an internship at Bell Labs typically reserved for college students, while he was still in high school. He attended Cornell University and earned his B.S. in chemical engineering, and after graduation worked for Goodyear Tire & Rubber and later, Kraft Foods. He earned two American and two European patents with his work. Later attending Columbia Business School and earning his MBA, Smith entered the world of finance at Goldman Sachs, becoming the first person to focus on enterprise systems and storage, and where he helped facilitate business with tech companies including IBM and Apple. In 2000, he launched his own investment firm, Vista Equity Partners, of which Smith is also Chairman and CEO. The company has grown into one of the leading global investment firms, and operates out of five cities across the country.    



Learn About Smith’s Philanthropy and Honors


Robert F. Smith never stops learning. In a 2017 commencement address at the University of Denver, he quoted the turn-of-the-century American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, who wrote, “Education…means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free.” 


Philanthropy for Smith has always been about giving back to the community, and lifting up the human spirit. He focuses on causes dear to his heart, such as preserving African American history, promoting diverse access to the arts and protecting and preserving the environment — as well as promoting access to quality education. He personally donated $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., and through Fund II Foundation, helped the National Park Service purchase the childhood homes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so they could be preserved and shared with future generations. He has been honored for his work, including awards such as:  


  •     •  Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy 
  •     •  Texas Business Hall of Fame  
  •     •  Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Award 
  •     •  UNCF President’s Award 
  •     •  Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Award 

Smith’s work with Student Freedom Initiative is just one part of ways he hopes to fuel future generations’ academic success and financial freedom.  

Follow Robert F. Smith online to learn more and to keep up with his philanthropic and entrepreneurial activities on Twitter and Instagram






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