As a businessman, engineer, and philanthropist, Robert F. Smith has been invited to speak on a wide range of issues.

W. E. B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony

At the Hutchins Center Honors, Robert F. Smith is awarded the highest honor in the field of African and African American studies, The W. E. B. Du Bois Medal.

Fireside Chat with Robert F. Smith and John Donovan

In a fireside chat at the InternX launch, Robert F. Smith and John Donovan discuss the importance of mentoring and investing in the next generation.

Robert Smith Speaks with CNBC from Davos

Andrew Ross Sorkin (CNBC) talks with Robert F. Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners, about the impacts of technology on wealth and income disparity at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Smith is a long-standing proponent of the World Economic Forum. He has been invited to speak at a variety of sessions and interviews at the annual meeting over the years.

American University Commencement Speech May ‘15

Robert F. Smith, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, was invited to give the commencement address at American University’s Spring 2015 graduation ceremony held on May 10, 2015. Smith highlighted the opportunities available to students today that were not possible for people in their parents’ or grandparents’ generations, and mentioned how advancements in technology have opened doors for this graduating class that will change their lives.

University of Denver Commencement Speech June ‘17

Denver native Robert F. Smith, who is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, was invited to give the commencement address at the University of Denver’s Spring 2017 graduation ceremony held on June 9, 2017. Smith’s speech included messages reminding graduates that their education has given them the qualities necessary to inspire change, and quoting Frederick Douglass, “education … means emancipation.” He encouraged students to use the knowledge and power they have gained while earning their degrees to be purposeful, hopeful, and stubborn in their values. In addition to being a hometown hero in Denver, Smith is also the son of a University of Denver graduate. His father received his EdD from the University of Denver.

Champions of Jewish Values Intl. Awards 2020

Robert F. Smith, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, was honored at Carnegie Hall for the World Values Network’s 8th Annual Jewish Awards Gala Dinner. In his speech, Smith, who has been the Chairman of Carnegie Hall since 2016, touched on the importance of allyship between African American and Jewish communities, the shared values between those communities, and how the history of each of those heritages has shaped the history of the United States.

the Importance of Diversity in Coding

Robert F. Smith of Vista Equity Partners discusses the importance of increasing diversity in the coding and programming fields. Smith walks viewers through’s approach to accessing diverse communities.

the Purpose of “Hour of Code”

Robert F. Smith, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, gives an overview of’s “Hour of Code” events. He explains why the event exists and how it can inspire students to further their education in programming.

Creating Opportunities Through Coding

Robert F. Smith explains how a working knowledge of how to code can be taught at a proficiency level in less than a year, and can subsequently create a lifelong career and open many doors for the individuals who learn to code.

Access, Curiosity & Tenacity

Students at the Epic Day of Code event ask Robert F. Smith what advice he has for students as they prepare their pathway for college and careers. Smith encourages students to explore and investigate their curiosities. As current students in this day and age, Smith explains students have access to resources, access to computing power, and access to some of the greatest minds on the planet. It is a matter of deciding to tap into that and then take that to move forward.


Robert F. Smith Commencement Address

American University School of International Service
Sunday, May 10, 2015 Washington, D.C.
Mother’s Day

Thank you very much.

President Kerwin, Provost Bass, Dean Goldgeier, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, parents, families, friends.

And the Chair of the SIS Dean’s Council, my good friend Alan Fleischmann.

Please join me in congratulating the American University School of International Service class of 2015!

Today, we also celebrate the women in our lives that nurtured us, challenged us to do more and be better, and taught us to do the right thing. These women are our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, friends, co-workers and mentors. These are the women that make a difference in our lives every day with big and small gestures and through the best and worst of times. Class of 2015 let’s stand and celebrate the mothers on our planet!!!


It’s magical to be here with each of you today – on this stage, in this auditorium. It was here, a little over seven years ago, that the late great Senator Ted Kennedy and his niece, now Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, endorsed a young Senator from Illinois for the presidency, providing crucial support at a critical moment in the campaign. That moment spurred the momentum that carried Barack Obama to the White House.

President Obama’s victory was particularly meaningful to me. I grew up in Denver, the second son of two parents with PhD’s in what had just become a newly desegregated America. As a child, I would come to Washington, DC, to visit my grandparents in the summers. My grandfather made a career in the US Postal Service but when he was in his late teens, he had once worked in the United States Congress in the Senate

Lounge, where he checked hats and coats and poured coffee and tea for Senators and other dignitaries.

Many years later, my grandfather and I decided to attend President Obama’s first inauguration ceremony. At age 93 he walked over 4 hours that day, to and from the ceremony with a great smile and without complaint. As we sat there on that frigid January morning, as guests of Senator Ted Kennedy, our breath smoking in the chilly winter’s cold, my granddad told me the story of another inauguration he’d witnessed, decades before – that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

He pointed up to a window, with a small American flag draped just below it, and from our angle it was just above where President-Elect Obama would stand to take his oath … my grandfather recalled looking out the very window from a perch in the Capitol Dome, his gaze spilling onto the huddled masses who’d come to view history. ## As he did, a fact dawned on my grandfather, the same lamentable fact that would have dawned on millions of other Americans at the time struggling for their right to be full citizens in this country: Aside from his own, there was not a single black face in sight. My grandfather’s words poured over me – poured over us – as we sat there shivering, about to watch the first African American president take the oath of office.

What struck me that morning was not how much the world had changed since FDR’s inauguration, or the accelerating pace of change. [Look….having spent my career at the intersection of finance and technology, I’d become accustomed to warp speed transformations and mind-blowing change.] What I marveled at that day in Washington was how Barack Obama had the courage to, in the timeless words of another Kennedy, the late Senator and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, “imagine things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?’”

What IS true is that we are only bound by the limits of our own conviction. We can transcend the script of a pre-defined story, and pave the way for the future that we design. We just need tap that power, that conviction, that determination within us.

As I look out upon you, the class of 2015, I see before me SIS’ tradition of diversity on stunning display. I see graduates from more than a hundred different countries, and every continent. I see different religions, different academic interests, and different plans for the future.

But the thing that unites you all, the common glue in this stunning sea of diversity, is your instinct to serve, your shared understanding that you have a unique role to play in the world.

To effect change and live the ethic of service that is built into this school’s DNA, you must bridge who you are with who you can be by running your own race.

Let me tell you what I mean, as I share the story of a famous racehorse: Secretariat.

42 years ago next month, Secretariat galloped to victory at the Belmont Stakes, capturing the final leg of the Triple Crown and becoming the first horse in 25 years to achieve one of sport’s most difficult feats. Secretariat, a 3-year-old thoroughbred, captured the hearts and minds of a nation…even as 10-year-old boy growing up in Colorado, I was captivated by this horse’s story.

Having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Secretariat was favored to win the Belmont stakes…even though it is the longest of the races, and many felt he was just a sprinter….not built for longer distances. Secretariat opened the race by exploding out of the gate and began driving himself forward to command an enormous lead on the field that kept growing with every stride. He was not looking to the right or to the left at his challengers…. Instead, that great thoroughbred was looking straight ahead. Even when he was 28 lengths ahead he kept surging forward….. Racing against himself. Running his own race.

By the time Secretariat crossed the finish line, he was a full 31 lengths in front of the second-place finisher. There’s a lesson in that story. And to me, the lesson is this: There is no greater test of ourselves, and no greater reward, than competing with our own potential.

It is incumbent upon all of you – Class of 2015 – to run your own race:

When I talk about running your own race, what do I mean?

Well, everyone’s formula is going to be different. The best way I can explain it to you is by drawing on my own experience, and illustrating the ways in which I’ve tried to run my own race at different points in my life and career.

Dreaming Big

So, to me, first and foremost, running your own race means dreaming big. And here, I’m called back to my childhood, when I was just starting school.

The Supreme Court had just ruled that public school districts could pursue desegregation by using forced busing to achieve racial balance in their schools. In fact, I started my education as a first grader being bussed to a school across town. Although I was a live subject in one of the nation’s most controversial legal debates, I frankly didn’t really know what the big deal was about – the kids who didn’t look like me sure acted like me.

But desegregation sure was a big deal to my parents. Leaders of their generation knew change was the right thing to do, even though they often met with resistance, sometimes violent resistance.

Because of their struggle, their sacrifice for education, I had received the gift to dream big. I knew my history. I remembered the pride of my mother telling me how she had brought my brother and me back to Washington, DC, and held us close, me at nine-month-old during the March on Washington while Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., laid out his dream for an equal, harmonious, and meritocratic America.

Dreaming big to me meant knowing my history, but not being bound by it. It meant harnessing the past to drive me into the future. It meant grounding myself in who I was and where I came from so I could soar into who I wanted to become.

Challenging Yourself and the Virtue of Persistence

So, to me, the first part of running your own race is dreaming big. The second part is about challenging yourself and being persistent.

As a junior at Denver East High School, I remember taking a computer science course and becoming transfixed when our teacher told us about transistors, which are the building blocks of computers.

Transistors were invented at Bell Labs, which had a facility about 20 miles from our home. After that lesson, which was in January, I dug up the phone number for Bell Labs to ask about summer internships. They said I could apply if I were a junior or senior in college. I said that was fantastic, because, while I was only a junior in high school, I was getting A’s in computer science and my advanced math courses, so it was like I was in college. Much to my dismay, they disagreed.

I called back every day for two weeks straight. The HR director stopped taking the calls after the second day but….I left a message with my phone number. Then I called every Monday for about 5 months, and every Monday the receptionist chuckled and took a message. I kept at it. To my great surprise, Bell Labs HR Director finally called me back – in June. An intern from MIT hadn’t shown up, and they needed someone fast.

While I know I was the most highly qualified candidate they would ever fine, the truth is that the reason I probably got the job is because they didn’t have a valid phone number for anyone else: All the college applicants had already gone home for the summer – which meant Bell Labs had no way to contact them in the age before cellphones and answering machines!!!

The reason Bell Labs even thought to call me was because I called every day telling them why they should hire me, even though they said they couldn’t. I ran my own race. I knew what I wanted, and my persistence paid off and I came in and interviewed. They liked me, and I got the internship. In fact I worked there for the next four years during summer and winter breaks and as a co-op student before I graduated with an Engineering degree from Cornell.

Discovering the Joy of Figuring Things Out

That’s where the third part of running your own race comes into play – about discovering the joy of figuring things out.

When I got to Bell Labs, I officed with a PhD in chemical engineering, one of the Distinguished Members of the Technical Staff, a man who had many patents to his name and who would become one of my first mentors.

On my first day at work, once settled into his office as his office mate…..this great man turned to me and posed a challenge. He held up a semiconductor chip and said, “This is an operational amplifier that seems to be failing in the field in our Merlin system. You need to figure out why it is failing so we can determine how to fix it. Let me know if you have any questions.” Then he went back to work.

You see, unlike today’s technically sophisticated High School students, I had never heard of an operational amplifier before in my life. I had no idea what they are supposed to do, how they do it, why this one wasn’t doing it let alone how you fix it. So what did I do? Well, in a time before Google and Wikipedia I went to the library, I asked questions of everyone who would stop and talk to me, and I learned everything I possibly could about operational amplifiers. By the end of the summer, not only did I have an idea about why it wasn’t working, I had built a system to simulate the conditions in the field that caused them to fail….and then, with my mentor’s help, we figured out how to fix them. My guess is, even today I still may have more knowledge about the inner workings of operational amplifiers than any intern in Bell Labs history.

The challenge from my mentor did more than teach me something about an obscure integrated computer circuit. It provided a lesson that I have valued ever since, a gift from which I continue to reap rich dividends. Through his challenge, I learned not to fear complex problems, but to embrace them; to not fret about what you don’t know, but to go learn more. That lesson, that joy of discovery, is a message I want to impart on you today. As you finish your studies and move out into the world: Discover the joy of figuring things out.

Listening to Your Own Voice

And as you take on new challenges, listen to your own voice. Running your own race demands trusting yourself even when others don’t.

Because guess what, lots of people – good people, people you trust and love, and who love you, mentors, your family, those who want the best for you and want to protect you – many of these people will think some of the things you want to do….are crazy.

When I left my steady engineering job at Kraft to go to business school, my parents and my grandfather thought I was crazy.

When I finished business school and decided to join the tumultuous world of investment banking, my family and friends spoke up with concerns about my sanity..

When I left my post at Goldman Sachs just after we had gone public to set up Private Equity Firm called Vista Equity Partners…my mentors and colleagues at Goldman thought I had lost it!!!

Well, when they further found out that Vista would invest exclusively in enterprise software, which was counter to every other firm’s strategy of spreading risk across sectors and I would hire a team of smart, hungry young people with no real experience in private equity themselves – every one I knew I was certifiable!!!! And I did this….in the spring of 2000.

Well….. I was never mad at those folks, in fact I’m grateful for their advice and concern. In their caution, I found my courage. In their doubts, I found my resolve. In their warnings, I found my voice and chartered my own journey.

I’m proud of the Vista story. We take risks. We do things differently. We listen to our own voice.

And it has worked. We are now considered to be the #1 private equity firm on the globe and have been so for the last decade. This might seem like a charming story, a one in a million play that somehow turned out right. But I’m convinced that Vista’s approach is quickly shifting from exception to rule, from option to necessity as the world races ahead.

Racing and Embracing Change

That changing world has important implications for you. To distinguish yourself today, you have to run toward change, not away from it. You have to embrace change, not shirk from it. Running your own race means embracing the rapid change that characterizes our modern world.

The world we inhabit today is fundamentally different from the one we lived in when I was your age. Consider an example. When I was in college, the new big thing on campus was ATM machines. Think about it…your parents could deposit money in your account at home and you could take it out without even having to call them with a story of how you NEEDED the money!!! Well, how could we trust these new machines….so…I kept all my receipts because I was worried the bank would lose a dollar or two in every transaction. Now, you deposit and transfer money by tapping a button on your smart phone. End of story. No worries.

But that’s a small example. Think about it: The world is changing so rapidly that the dynamic of change itself has changed. Words, thoughts, and ideas now move at the speed of light to everyone on the planet. The dynamic of human intention can impact millions in seconds… and billions in minutes.

So, what does this mean for you? It means that the purity of your intention, the integrity of your purpose, has the utmost importance not only for you, but for everyone around you, including billions of people you’ve never met.

Your every action and intention reverberates across the world, joining with other reverberations to form a seismic wave of impact. Your intentions have to be thought through, because their implications ricochet around our world at the speed of light.

This has profound significance for what you will need to succeed. The pace of change in the world today demands originality. It demands that you run your own race. That you look ahead, not behind. Convention won’t cut it anymore. To succeed, you need to step up and be original, to overcome fear and not escape it.

And as leaders, you’ll need a system of support to gather and analyze information, and help you make difficult decisions. You have to prepare yourself and your colleagues for the new normal of accelerated change, to anticipate shifts before they occur, to lead our world as it rapidly evolves.

Recognizing You Are Enough

But the single most important part of succeeding today – the single most important part of running and winning your own race –is recognizing that you are enough and that you are an original. “You are enough” does not mean that you should not have humility – what it means is that you have a destiny.

I’m here to tell you that, by virtue of your being here today, by virtue of walking across that stage – you are enough.

Because of your time and the foundation you have received at SIS, you are enough to lead in a new way, to design elegant solutions to the world’s biggest, most complex challenges.

You have the instinct to serve, and the skills to succeed. In fact, you have skills across a number of areas. Don’t separate these skills; integrate them. The future will be written by those who integrate their whole being. That’s a big part of your challenge as you leave here today.

Call To Action: Being The Ripple Of Hope

I’ve taken you through what I have found to be the most important parts of running your own race:

Dreaming big;

  • Challenging yourself and being persistent;
  • Discovering the joy of figuring things out;
  • Listening to your own voice; and
  • Racing toward and embracing change.
  • Recognizing that “You are Enough”

Now that you’ve got the recipe, here’s my call to action. Use your skills, your knowledge, your instincts to serve – to go change the world in the way that only you can. Grab hold of your noble intentions and let them expand into the universe of action.

A life contained is no life at all….You are enough to create ripples of change that bend the arc of humanity closer to justice.

With the events that unfolded in Baltimore two weeks ago – just 38 miles away – it is clear that now more than ever, reaching your potential…no matter who you are and where you come from…matters not only to you, but to all of us. In 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited South Africa and made a powerful speech about the injustice of apartheid. Rather than deliver a discourse of despair, Senator Kennedy used his words to invoke the power embedded in every human spirit… the power we all have within us to shape our world for the better.

As he put it:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,…. but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped…

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring….. those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Senator Kennedy’s words echo across the ages and ring as true today as they did in 1966. With the transmission of technology, and the rapidity of change, your ripple moves far more quickly in today’s world than it did back then. Every intention, every action, every word counts. Your journey matters.

At the reception at the School of International Service following today’s ceremony, each of you will receive a copy of Bobby Kennedy’s Ripple of Hope speech as a gift from me. I want you to frame it. Learn it. Live it. Remember, you are enough. In fact, you are everything. We need you, we are counting on you, as each of you is one of a kind. And let the race you run become a ripple of hope that cascades out into humanity, a symbol of hope and strength for the world.

Thank you very much for having me today. Please join me in congratulating the class of 2015!


Commencement Remarks by Robert F. Smith


Graduate Ceremony of the University of Denver

Friday, June 9th, 2017

Thank you, Chancellor Chopp, for your kind introduction. Chairman Scrivner and members of the Board of Trustees: It is an honor and great privilege to join you today.

For a kid from Denver, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Faculty, friends, family, graduates, thank you and congratulations. You make an extraordinary sight – a stunning vista of colors that reflect your accomplishments in all their diversity.

Standing here and seeing you, I have a familiar sense of pride and excitement. You see, 45 years ago, my father earned his Doctorate in Education from this very institution.

I remember that day vividly. I was nine years old, and as I sat on my parents’ bed while my father put on his graduation robes, I listened to him explain how each school had its own special colors — the beautiful light blue and yellow, with a little bit of orange – that were the colors of the School of Education.

They were strikingly beautiful – and he was regal in his presentation of them. And it should come as no surprise that the logo of my firm Vista, carries those same shades of blue and yellow — so I am reminded every day of this university and the profound impact it had on my father’s life and my family.

But even as I watched him walk across the stage that day, I didn’t fully understand how significant that moment – or his achievements – were. It didn’t sink in until later.

That evening, my mother arranged a backyard celebration, something we typically did that I always looked forward to because that meant we would have soda pop in the large steel drums filled with ice, and I would be responsible for plunging my hand into the ice-cold water to fulfill a drink order…which also meant I could hide one orange soda in the corner, guaranteeing that I would get one!

As was typical of all Smith family gatherings, all of father’s six sisters and brother and their children showed up that day.

We totaled well over 20 just ourselves — and of course I expected to see our “extended family,” the folks I called my aunts and uncles.

What actually occurred took me by surprise. Instead of a small gathering of very familiar relatives, the entire neighborhood came out to shake his hand and pat him on the back!

And the stream of visitors didn’t stop that day. For the next week or so, our doorbell rang constantly with the good wishes of friends, family, and neighbors who wanted to share in the moment.

To understand why this one degree meant so much to them, let me tell you a little bit about the city of Denver and the neighborhood of my childhood. We lived on 26th and Cook, in North East Denver — just across the street from City Park Golf Course.

And back then, Denver and most other American cities remained extremely divided by race, both politically and geographically. When I started kindergarten, court-ordered bussing to desegregate the school system was just beginning in Denver, and a number of the children in my neighborhood were bussed to the SouthEast side of town — to Carson Elementary — on 3rd and Grape.

As a kindergartner, I did not feel the “change” that the older children felt as this was all I knew of school. I did quickly realize that aside from the difference in the hue of our skins, the children in my classes all pretty much acted the same. And over time I came to realize our parents had very similar values in what they wanted for us.

Both communities seemed to be filled with hardworking folks from various walks of life, all with an eye towards advancing this American Dream.

In my community, my neighbors were mostly educated, proud, hardworking, and ambitious. They were dentists, music teachers, politicians, Pullman porters, teachers, contractors and pharmacists.

They were focused on serving the African American community and providing a safe and nurturing environment for the kids of our neighborhood.

They had been on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. Sacrificed their sons to the Vietnam War. Mourned the death of a Kennedy, a King, and then another Kennedy.

They had yet to achieve the fullness of the American Dream for themselves — but they believed it was only a matter of time. If not for them, then surely for their children.

They believed that our imperfect nation was becoming more perfect every day. And they believed that by conducting themselves and raising their families with integrity, they were contributing to that process of perfection in a very real way.

And so, we celebrated every sign that the barriers of inequality were collapsing and the doors of opportunity were opening. My neighbors flocked to see my father, because his achievement, in a very real way, was theirs, too.

That afternoon, in our backyard, I began to understand the old saying that “success has many parents.” It was true then, and, looking out at all of you, it is certainly true today.

The success of our graduates belongs to all of us.

Earning a graduate degree is one of the greatest and most impressive of life’s accomplishments, but as hard as each of you worked, none of you crossed the finish line alone.

You brought a team along, and many of your teammates are here with you. So, first and foremost, graduates of the class of 2017, please stand and join me in recognizing the love and commitment of those who have been on this journey with you.

In my father’s time, the prospect of an African American earning a doctorate was virtually non-existent. Even today, it is exceedingly rare for any American to earn a graduate degree.

Less than 9 percent of Americans have earned advanced degrees, and just 3 percent have earned doctorates.

Needless to say, today is your induction into a very small, very important club. In order to get here, many of you have now dedicated years of your life to higher learning.

You have put other plans aside to do this.

You passed up countless opportunities and deferred many a paycheck to do this.

You have missed time with your family and friends to do this.

And you made these sacrifices for one simple reason:

You believe that scholarship still matters.

You believe that rigor still matters.

You believe that facts still matter.

You believe, graduates, that truth still matters.

But now, as you stand at the finish line and reflect on your efforts and sacrifices, I suspect that some of you are left wondering whether these timeless values are still relevant in a world that increasingly seems more interested in speed and noise, than thought and integrity.

Yes, it’s true — whether you stay in academia professionally, or join the public, private, or civil society sectors, you are launching your careers at a moment of vast and disruptive change.

As much as technology has transformed our world over the past quartercentury, we’ve not seen anything yet!

We are just now entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an era of human history during which technology will evolve from being a part of our lives to becoming central to virtually every part of our lives.

These changes hold great promise for advancing the highest ideals of a freer, fairer, and more hopeful society.

Today, for the first time in human history, success requires no prerequisite of wealth or capital — no ownership of land, or natural resources, or people.

Today, success can be created solely through the power of one’s mind, ideas, and courage.

Intellectual capital can be cultivated, monetized, and instantaneously distributed across the globe. In fact, intellectual capital has become the new currency of business and finance — and the promise of brainpower to move people from poverty to prosperity has never been more possible.

But for all this extraordinary promise, the age we’re now entering also comes with great peril.

We discover every day that technology has enormous power to unite…but it can also alienate.

It can empower, but it can also disenfranchise.

But what keeps me up at night is not the risks of technology. It is the risk of people neglecting their own role and personal agency to decide how technology impacts our communities.

In a world that is changing so fast and so unpredictably, the easiest thing to do is simply take our hands off the steering wheel and coast.

We can either choose to harness technology as a great equalizer — or we can allow it to minimize, victimize, and fracture our communities.

We can either choose to take up arms in the fight for intellectual capital — or we can decide to settle for the lowest common denominator.

We can either choose to build communities — or we can build walls.

The key point is that we have a choice in the matter.

We must make these choices consciously — and we must remake them every day.

This isn’t always easy to do. The consequences of overlooking a moment of choice – or choosing wrong – may not be immediately evident.

But when we collectively begin to give up our say in the matter — that’s when we as a society lose our equilibrium.

This has been the focus of many of your academic lives – studying the equilibrium of systems.

Of natural systems. Of legal systems. Of markets. Of the human body.

My training as a chemical engineer sharpened my passion for complex systems — for understanding them, deconstructing them, and finding their equilibrium.

But while I found beauty in the absolute truth of machines in the classroom, I found purpose in the messiness of human interactions in the real world.

Regardless of what field you studied or profession you call your own, we all share a common mission – not to be observers or followers, but to be thinkers, doers, and leaders.

And in a world of dizzying speed, complexity, and disruption, I believe there is only one way to approach this daunting task:

Be purposeful.

In your careers, in your causes, and in your communities — be purposeful.

Just a few years ago, the trendy advice to give in a commencement speech was to experience many different jobs and industries, to try on fresh careers like new suits in a department store until one of them fits.

That may be good advice for some. But one of the burdens of your advanced degree is that you don’t have this luxury.

You are now certified experts in your respective fields. You have a fancy new piece of paper that proves it.

But that diploma isn’t just for framing. There’s fine print: it’s actually a binding social contract that calls on you to apply your talents, your intellect, and most of all, your fidelity to truth-finding and truth-telling, to the parts of society that need you most.

You owe the world your focus.

A generation ago, your core responsibilities would have been to establish a successful career, provide for your family, and give back to society when you can.

Today, you must do these things — and much more. The stakes are higher and your responsibilities are greater.

In the years to come, we will see many of today’s challenges grow more acute.

Increasing numbers of people will grow to feel excluded from our political and economic structures.

Entire industries will be upended by technology, creating new wealth and demand in the workforce for some, while leaving others vulnerable and at risk.

Tensions between humans and computers will flare up, creating new vulnerabilities and introducing new ethical dilemmas.

And global discontent and alienation will continue to manifest itself in populism and extremism, opening the door to authoritarian rule, oppression, and civil strife.

You are not expected to tackle all of these problems — but you are required to focus and make a measurable impact.

Never for a moment give in to cynicism or give up on optimism — for the tools you honed here at the University of Denver qualify you to be a part of the solution.

I firmly believe, as President John F. Kennedy once said, that —

“Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.”

You — the men and women of this graduating class — can be as big as you want.

Find your cause. Find it purposefully.

Don’t spread around and dilute your talents and contributions. Maximize your impact.

I first learned the value of focus from my mother. She is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. As far as I know, she only received one grade lower than an A in her life…and that was an A Minus.

She, too, earned her doctorate in education — and upon graduation, she decided her cause would be to educate the children of our community.

She became the leader at Knight Fundamental Academy and then George Washington High School. Her Fundamental Academy, against all odds, led the district in test scores the entire time she was there.

This was despite – or, perhaps because of – the diversity of students that attended. She did this by setting exacting standards for the children and their parents.

She believed, as I was brought up knowing, that progress isn’t inevitable. We must make it so — and she made it so.

This can-do spirit is represented and embodied by the city of my birth, the city of your graduate education.

When Denver was founded in 1858, it was barely a blip on the great American frontier.

When gold was discovered in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Denver enjoyed an intense burst of investment.

After a gold rush, most boom towns go bust. But not Denver.

When the gold dried up, the people of Denver didn’t pack up and head for greener pastures.

They stuck around and built a town that sold supplies to the miners who were on their way to the latest gold town.

Residents of this city had foresight. They realized that the Western gold rush wouldn’t last forever, yet seeing our country’s Westward drive was here to stay.

So a generation of Denver entrepreneurs then invested in new rail lines that made the city a nexus of travel and commerce as migration intensified.

During World War II, Denver was fueled by investments in the manufacturing sector, and later, the oil and gas industry catalyzed the growth of downtown and Denver’s birth as a modern metropolis.

Today, the city is undergoing yet another renaissance as a technology hub. My own company now employs nearly 600 people in Denver – and growing.

Generation after generation — building, imagining, reimagining, rebuilding.

Yet through the years and the endless cycles of rebirth, this city’s pioneering soul endures.

The soul of a city. The soul of a neighborhood. The soul of a family.

Anchored in timeless values, yet fearlessly pushing forward.

Defined by the past, but not confined by it.

This is your story and mine.

Just nine months after I was born, my mother hauled my big brother and me 1,700 miles east to witness Dr. King’s historic March on Washington.

She knew that her boys would be far too young to remember, but she believed that the dream we heard in the endless crowd that day would always be a part of the men we would one day become.

Decades later, I had the privilege to take my grandfather with me to the opposite side of the National Mall as a guest of a United States Senator to celebrate the inauguration of our nation’s first African American president.

The beautiful poetry of that return to the nation’s Capital, under very different circumstances — a poetry of time and soul that Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory” — was lost on neither of us.

You cannot have lived a life like mine, or come from a place like this, without believing in the enduring goodness of our country and its people.

You cannot have witnessed the history I have without profound respect for the unsung everyday heroes who, generation after generation, nudged, shoved, and ultimately bent what Dr. King called “the arc of the moral universe” a little closer to justice.

I am reminded of this every time I’m in Denver, and without fail, at some point during the day a stranger approaches me and says, “You are Bill and Sylvia’s Son…”

And then they tell me a story about how my parents changed either their lives or someone in their family’s life for the better, and often in a profound way.

Now that is definition and demonstration of having lived a purposeful life.

I should be so fortunate that people approach my children and say that about me one day.

Thank you, mom and dad, for this wonderful gift.

Now, I know you think that one of the great joys of this moment is that it means you will never have to take another test.

No so. Today I will offer a pop quiz: who was the most photographed American in the nineteenth century, just around the same time that Colorado was coming into its own as a state?

I’ll give you one hint — it was not Abraham Lincoln.

Give up? It was Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass — an escaped slave and abolitionist, who taught himself how to read and write under cover of darkness.

Like everything Douglass did, sitting for portraits was purposeful.

It was a public stand and an act of defiance.

He wanted to ensure the image of a black man was recorded faithfully and truthfully.

Etched into history, each image became a small signal of progress, a small course correction, another nudge to that moral arc, in a journey he knew would outlast him, as it will each of us.

“Education…means emancipation,” Douglass once wrote.

“It means light and liberty.

“It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free.”

Graduates, let these words be your searchlight as you set out to make your mark.

Be purposeful.

Be hopeful.

Be flexible in your views, but stubborn in your values.

Contribute your brilliance, your knowledge, and your wisdom, to the glorious light of truth.

Thank you very much. Congratulations, and good luck!


Robert F. Smith: Champions of Jewish Values International Awards 2020


March 3, 2020

Thank you so much for your kind words, Elisha, and thank you for everything you do to carry on your father’s legacy.

This award means the world to me. Rabbi Shmuley, I’m honored by your invitation.

As Chairman of Carnegie Hall, I’m pleased to welcome you here to this special place. Welcome to MY HOUSE…..It seems fitting for us to be here tonight.

Music has the power to bridge time, and culture to bring people together – and no place embodies that more than Carnegie Hall.

This is where a soprano named Sissieretta Jones broke the color barrier back in 1893.

Where Pete Seeger sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Where Isaac Stern performed more than 200 times before leading the effort that saved this incredible building from demolition.

And where Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, Jessye Norman, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Itzhak Perlman, and the great Count Basie awed and inspired.

Step inside Carnegie Hall, and the promise of America is vivid and enduring.

It is this promise I want to speak of tonight: the promise of ties that bind us together.

In fact, it was at Carnegie Hall where Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois joined Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in 1945 to conduct a meeting for the defense of Israel after the end of WWII. We have a history of African Americans and the sons and daughters of Israel coming together to aid and support each other in liberating our collective spirits.

Our communities, our cultures, our country.

There’s a certain poetry to the timing of this event where we gather to celebrate our common values.

Just two days ago, leaders from across our country gathered in Selma, Alabama, to mark the 55th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march.

My generation grew up with the images of those peaceful protestors crossing the Pettis bridge seared in our memories.

Men and women. Black and white. Reverends and Rabbis.

The Jewish community’s leadership in the Civil Rights movement is one of history’s most neglected truths.

More than half the lawyers who volunteered their services to the movement were Jewish. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arms with Dr. King on the Selma bridge and said, “I felt like my legs were praying.”

Much is made of the divisions and anger in our society today. Many of us are rightly concerned about the divide between the African American and Jewish communities.

I am here to say that anyone who propagates this fear and division simply doesn’t understand our common experience and common bond.

The Jewish people and the African American people share a birthright burden. We are wanderers in search of a place to call home, to plant roots, to build community.

These places do exist.

The neighborhood in North East Denver where I grew up wasn’t affluent, but we looked out for one another. We weren’t middle class, we were striving class. When my father earned his Doctorate, our whole neighborhood came by our house to congratulate him, because his achievement belonged to all of us.

I was bussed across town to Carson Elementary, where I learned and played alongside some kids, many of which did not look like me. Many of my classmates were Jewish, and we sang songs for Hanukah together, attended Passover together, and played in the jazz band together.

I’m not suggesting the complexities of our world have solutions this simple. What I am suggesting is that we can begin to heal our world when we acknowledge the similarities in the burdens, we carry… and work together to liberate them.

You can’t have lived the life I have without understanding that this work begins in our schools. I grew up watching my mother, who was a local school teacher and then a principal, send a $25 check each month to the United Negro College Fund, for over 50 years. This was in the days before online payments, so she would write a check, address an envelope, stamp it, and bring it to the post office. I watched her make the effort – each and every month….that was an expression of our family values….and that had meaning!

I saw my Father engage for decades in insuring that the young people in my community had food, educational support through driving the Head Start program, and putting effort forward to insure voter registration infrastructure was a priority….this at a time when my people finally gained full access to the bounty of America….8 generations after our arrival…

It was this in my mind when… I stood on that stage at commencement at Morehouse College last Spring…I was overcome with a bittersweet feeling….as the first generation of my family to have all their rights in this country….. looking out over a sea of 400 young men in front of me that were celebrating the greatest accomplishment of their lives…. They were on the verge of soaring, and yet they, and their families, were weighed down by the burden of federal student loan debt.

It was also not lost on me that it was 400 years since 1619 and an act of liberating their spirits was appropriate for me, a black man to do.

I imagined the feeling of lightness if they could start their careers without that burden. Perhaps they would start a business, or take a job working for a lower salary but greater social purpose, or buy a home and invest in their community sooner.

This work is all about liberating the human spirit. These are the values that I cherish, and the values that we share, the values I learned at home.

If there was any question about the commonality of these values between the African American and Jewish people, we need look no further than Dr. King’s famous sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in which he reflected on the Jewish tradition of “Tikkun Olam” — To repair the world:

“I want to be on your right side or your left side,” Dr. King said, “In love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world…a new world.”

Let’s honor the tradition of linking arms and walking together.

Let’s honor the spirit of the Talmud that vigorous debate makes us stronger, and even in disagreement, we are brothers and sisters.

Let’s never allow the ties that bind us to fray.

And let’s work together each day to make our old world new.

Thank you very much…and thank you for welcoming me and my family into your tribe.