From an early age, Robert F. Smith learned the importance of using your position, skills and voice to give back to your community and expand access to opportunities.
“When I look at the folks that inspired me growing up, people like Frederick Douglass, they had to stand up and take positions in public in order to make a difference,” Smith said. “Part of the responsibility I have, because of the opportunities I’ve been granted, is to take leadership positions and help expand access for others.”
Here’s three ways Smith, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, is using his leadership position to expand access for others:
1. Expanding Access to Music Education — Right now, 3.8 million preK-12 students in the U.S. have no access to music education, according to the Grammy Music Education Coalition, and this gap disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx students. To expand access to the arts and music, Smith made a major commitment to the Sphinx Organization to help bolster their program, which provides music lessons, instruments, scholarships and networking and performance opportunities to marginalized students. In particular, Smith established the “Robert Frederick Smith Prize,” an award given annually to winners of the Senior Division of the Sphinx Competition.
2. Expanding Access to Debt-Free College Education — More than 8 in 10 Black bachelor’s degree recipients carry student debt, compared to only 69% of white bachelor’s degree recipients, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. In addition, Black students, on average, hold more debt than their white counterparts. To help expand access to higher education without the barriers of college debt, Smith made a major gift to the class for Morehouse College — he paid off their entire student debt. This wiped out nearly $34 million in student loan debt for more than 400 graduates. Smith also created a new program — The Student Freedom Initiative — which is working to lessen the burden of student debt for students at HBCUs by offering flexible alternatives to high-interest private student loans.
3. Expanding Access to Capital and Financial Support — Today, 70% of African American communities lack access to a single branch bank, according to Smith. Without financial institutions these communities can struggle to access capital that help small businesses start, grow and thrive. That’s why Smith is leading the charge in helping bolster Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that are stepping in where “established” bank branches won’t and are providing critical financial services to marginalized communities. For example, after COVID-19 hit and many small businesses were forced to shutter, Smith pushed the White House and Congress to include funding for CDFIs in order to better reach Black and Latino small business owners with relief capital.