Robert Smith shocked the students at the historically black, all-male Morehouse College Sunday when he announced during his commencement address that he would be paying off student debts of all 400 graduates.

Here is a look at the man behind the gift, estimated to be worth $40 million.

Early life

Robert F. Smith was born and raised in a mostly African American, middle-class neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. Both his parents were teachers who had earned Ph.Ds. While attending East High School in Denver, Smith applied for an internship with Bell Labs. He was told the program was intended for college students, but Smith refused to take no for an answer. He called every week and finally was allowed into the program when another student failed to show.

He attended Cornell University in New York, studying chemical engineering. He got a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University.


Before attending graduate school, Smith worked at Kraft General Foods as a chemical engineer, where he earned two U.S. and two European patents. After graduating from Columbia, he worked at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, advising tech companies, including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo and Microsoft. He was the first person at Goldman Sachs to focus solely on technology mergers and acquisitions.

In 2000, he founded Vista Equity Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm. According to Forbes, Vista is worth more than $46 billion, owns over 50 software companies and has 60,000 employees worldwide. It is believed to be one of the best-performing firms in the country.

According to Forbes, Smith is worth $5 billion, making him the richest African American in the U.S.

Personal life

Smith is the first African American to be named chairman of the board at Carnegie Hall, America’s most prestigious concert venue. He is also the chairman of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, a nonprofit human rights advocacy group.

He is one of the founding donors of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, committing $20 million to the museum before its opening.

Smith also founded the Fund II Foundation, which provides grants for causes such as human rights, the environment, music education and “preserving the African American experience.”

In 2017, he signed The Giving Pledge, an effort spearheaded by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to enlist wealthy Americans in giving away half of their fortunes. Smith said he would invest half of his net worth during his lifetime to causes that support equality for black Americans and the environment.

He is married to Hope Dworaczyk, an actress and former Playboy model. They have two children together, and Smith has three other children from a previous marriage.