About Robert F. Smith
Robert F. Smith is a business leader, investor in transformative companies, a champion for diversity and inclusion and a steward of culture, the environment, equity and education. Learn about Smith’s early life, the beginning of his career and the founding of the technology investment firm — Vista Equity Partners — and his dedication to serving and giving back to his communities and our planet through innovative and expansive philanthropic giving.
Early Life and Career
Robert F. Smith was born in a working-class neighborhood of Denver, Colorado in 1962. Both of his parents cared deeply about giving back, and when he was just an infant, he went with his mother to the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Each month, he watched his mom send off a $25 check to the United Negro College Fund – no matter their financial situation. These experiences helped instill in him the belief that everyone can be a part of making the world a better and more equitable place.
While still in high school, Robert was initially denied a prestigious internship at Bell Labs because they were reserved for college students, but his persistence in calling the company every week for five months paid off when he was eventually offered the position.
Smith continued to work at Bell Labs during his summer and winter breaks while completing his chemical engineering degree at Cornell University. After graduating from Cornell, he worked as an engineer for several top companies – including Kraft General Foods, where he was granted two patents in the U.S. and two more in Europe – before going on to earn his MBA with honors from Columbia Business School.
In 1994, Robert joined Goldman Sachs to help develop more robust investment banking in technology, starting out in New York and later moving to Silicon Valley. He became the Co-Head of Enterprise Systems and Storage, where he assisted massive technology companies like Hewlett Packard, IBM, eBay and Apple with mergers and acquisitions. He was the first person at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco to focus on that specific area of financing.
We can transcend the script of a pre-defined story, and pave the way for the future that we design…tap that power, that conviction, that determination within us.
– Robert F. Smith
Founder, Chairman and CEO
of Vista Equity Partners
In 2000, Robert F. Smith founded Vista Equity Partners to invest in innovation by way of enterprise software and technology solutions. Today, he serves as Chairman and CEO of Vista, directing the firm’s strategy, governance and investor relations. In 2011, Vista opened its office in Austin, Texas, and was recognized as the most active investor in the software industry by Berkery Noyes.
Smith was recognized by Forbes as one of the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds in 2017 for his business acumen and leadership skills.
Community Board Positions
Chairman of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Member of the Board of Overseers of Columbia Business School
Member of the Cornell Engineering College Council
Chairman of Carnegie Hall — In this role, Smith champions the arts and funds education programs for K–12 students. He is the first African American to hold this role.
Robert F. Smith believes deeply in the need to give back and support communities. Throughout his life, Smith has continuously supported a number of philanthropies and causes. In 2017, he joined the Giving Pledge, pledging to donate a majority of his net worth during his lifetime. And in recognition of his bold, expansive philanthropy, The Chronicle of Philanthropy named Smith one of the “Philanthropy 50.”
Smith’s philanthropy has supported major education institutions, social justice organizations as well as the arts and scientific research for breast cancer, colon cancer, and other diseases.
Smith made history when he donated $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was the largest donation by an individual to the museum in its history. In 2019, he stunned Morehouse College graduates during his commencement speech by announcing a commitment to pay off all student loan debt for the entire class — a $34 million gift.
Following this donation, Smith expanded his debt-eliminating efforts and helped create the nonprofit organization the Student Freedom Initiative, which will work to reduce the student loan debt taken on by STEM students attending HBCUs. The Initiative was initially funded with a $50 million donation by the Fund II Foundation, which was followed by a personal donation of an additional $50 million by Smith himself.
Beyond his personal giving, Smith is also the founding director and President of the Fund II Foundation, which is focused on five pillars: preserving the African American experience, defending human rights, expanding music education, protecting the environment, and sustaining critical American values.
Selected Honors and Awards
- Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy
- Texas Business Hall of Fame (2019 Inductee)
- UNCF President’s Award
- Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Award
See Robert’s other recognitions:
View the archives for videos from some of Robert F. Smith’s prior speaking engagements.