May 4 is National Teacher Day in the U.S., celebrated annually on the first Tuesday of the month. The day is an opportunity to honor teachers and recognize the contributions they make to individual lives and society at large. For Robert F. Smith, educators and education have been an integral part of his life.
Growing up in Colorado, Smith was raised by two educators who both received doctorate degrees. His father, William, was one of the early leaders in the effort to bring Head Start to Colorado. His mother, Sylvia, was a school principal who made sure to prioritize education beyond her own profession. She wrote a $25 check to the United Negro College Fund every month without fail, no matter what the family’s financial situation.
After attending the public school system in Denver, Smith attended Cornell University, earning a Bachelors of Science in Chemical Engineering in 1985. While at Cornell, Smith joined Alpha Phi Alpha, the first historically African-American Greek-lettered fraternity. In 1994, he received his MBA from Columbia University with honors. He was elected to be the commencement speaker for the Business School.
Later in life, Smith has prioritized giving back to ensure that today’s students are given quality educational opportunities. Last year, he brought the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy to life in his hometown of Denver. The school is founded on the principles of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and embraces the importance of science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM).
“When I think about what it took to create the STEAM academy, it occurs to me it wasn’t actually about starting a school. It was about building a village,” said Smith in a virtual statement about the school’s launch. “The STEAM academy stands as tribute to a community of people who care about each other, and care about making our future better than our past.”
Smith was excited and honored to have a school named after him, but he also added a caveat to future students of the academy. “For the students who will attend the STEAM academy, this means that the only limitations in your lives will be your own capacity to dream, to work hard, and to build. But this doesn’t mean that success will come easy,” he cautioned. “You need to make the conscious choice to put in those hours to achieve greatness and to keep affirming that choice every day.”
Smith’s efforts to increase educational opportunities where he grew up could help some of those students become as successful as he is. To learn more about educational initiatives that Smith supports, read more about his feelings on the importance of internships and STEM exposure, philanthropic support of HBCUs and his support of educational initiatives for students of color, like Eagle Academy in New York. .