How Did Robert F. Smith Become a Billionaire?

Those looking for Robert F. Smith’s secrets to becoming a billionaire should study his journey to the top — from his extensive education in engineering and finance to his founding of Vista Equity Partners — and all the hard work that got him there. He’s also a savvy businessman who graduated with honors from the MBA he earned at Columbia University. After decades of hard work at the intersection of the technology and finance industries, Smith is also now known as the wealthiest Black man in America (Smith has a net worth of $6 billion* as of July 2021, according to Forbes). An entrepreneur and philanthropist, Smith is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. He’s also an accomplished chemical engineer, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University.

Becoming an Expert Is the Secret to Billionaire Robert F. Smith’s Success

Even as a successful businessman, in his early years after founding Vista, Smith found that he still flew under the radar of the public eye. He lived a “quiet, nerdish” life as someone who loved to solve problems. But he found this anonymity was holding him back from closing deals in the private equity realm. 

“I started first as an engineer, then as an investment banker, and then starting Vista [Equity Partners]…I realized that I was going to be limited by the amount of capital [I could get invested] if people didn’t know who I was,” Smith said. 

In 2016, it was noted that even though Smith was the richest Black man in America, most people had never heard his name. As of 2018, Forbes estimated Smith’s net worth at $4.4 billion, while also noting his strong philanthropic focus. Smith signed on to the Giving Pledge in 2017, promising to give away most of his fortune during his lifetime — he was the first African American to sign on. 

“The most important thing you can do as a young person in [the Black] community is to become an expert,” Smith said in a candid interview at Columbia Business School in front of the Columbia Black Business Students Association. [It’s key] “to become skilled in whatever it is that you are desirous of doing. And that takes countless hours and in some cases outreach for knowledge and information and in some cases it’s [about] building a learned capability. To me there is no substitute for that….There’s no substitute for becoming an expert and being the best at your craft. And that’s what I focused on.” 

How Robert F. Smith Started His Career

Smith went on to relate to the Columbia audience about how times weren’t always easy for him in the business world, even after he’d earned his MBA and founded Vista Equity Partners.

“Let me give you an example: 10 years ago I decided to go to the Middle East to raise capital…and I’d bring my little…studies…and I’d sit there in the waiting room hoping they’d invite me in, after I’d flown in to Dubai, or Kuwait or wherever…and nothing happened.”

Smith slowly learned that he had to understand his markets and how to communicate with them, in order to truly succeed in business. 

“I’d say, ‘Look at the data,’…but I realized the decision makers weren’t really looking at the data…. And I realized I now have to help them understand who I am and who Vista is as a manifestation of me. So one of the things I did was found a brilliant strategic firm to help me organize that process. And that process you have seen unfold ‘in the press’ in a way that helps me and Vista achieve our goals.”

Smith found that even after earning two degrees, and years of professional experience, he was still having to learn new things if he wanted to become an expert and become truly successful. 

“I had to learn a new craft: The Craft of Fundraising. How do you raise funds for a private equity firm?,” Smith asked the students and alumni at Columbia Business School. “How do you raise funds for a credit organization and a hedge fund?…That’s all a part of the narrative: What are the tools that you need? What are the tools that your audience needs? And do you have the capacity to deliver that?”

How Smith Gives Back to His Community

As a billionaire, Smith is often in the public eye — from the boardroom to his home office, where he will take work calls while balancing home life. He doesn’t get to go out to the movies anonymously anymore. But that sacrifice of personal freedom isn’t a big deal to Smith, given what his wealth has allowed him to provide for his community.

“One of the benefits… is I now have the ability…to inspire some people, some young people, African Americans, to actually say ‘I can now go do this,” Smith said. 

Growing up in Denver, Colorado, Smith only knew one engineer in his Black community. While this person was actually only a draftsman, Smith still took inspiration from him as he started his journey into the engineering field. He then sought out “the two, three, five” other African Americans in engineering that he met during internships and jobs and talked to them about how they found success. When African American financial and Wall Street experts were later profiled in Black Enterprise magazine, Smith found his circle of successful professional Black men was growing even more. He found inspiration for the next phase of his career that brought him out of the lab and into the boardroom in private equity and finance.

“I realized that part of my role and responsibility now…is I have to give some of these young people someone they can look to and say, ‘Ok, if that guy could do it, I could do it,” Smith said. “You have to take those leadership roles in your community to inspire [them]….250 kids will turn into 2,500 to 25,000 to 2.5 million. This is the stuff that matters. We have to get it into our communities in ways that’s real, and part of our culture, as opposed to something that’s the exception to our culture.”

Smith Is Giving His Fortune, and Inspiration, Away for Free

Robert F. Smith has found part of his calling is also to give away his fortune to philanthropic causes that speak to his desire to promote African American culture, education and the arts, as well as other interests. Among the list of recipients is the National Museum for African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), to which Smith donated $20 million in 2016. It was the largest donation by an individual that the museum had received at that time.

Director of the NMAAHC, Lonnie G. Bunch III noted that Smith is a part of a new generation of donors that feel they can express themselves through their philanthropy. “Robert is part of a generation that can be proud to be a successful businessperson,” Bunch said. 

Bunch also noted in a Smithsonian article about the donation that “Robert’s gift exemplifies his commitment to increasing access to opportunity, recognizing the potential in each of us and his respect for our past.”

As Smith noted in his statement about signing the Giving Pledge, “Today, wealth can be created through the power of utilizing one’s creative and diligent mind and leveraging vast amounts of computing power to turn great ideas into products and services that make our lives better. Intellectual capital can be cultivated, monetized and instantaneously distributed across the globe and the benefits can then be returned to one’s community.”

Learn more about Robert F. Smith’s philanthropy, including his work to preserve and promote African American culture, music and arts education and advocating for human rights.