Robert F. Smith is best known as the Founder, Chairman and CEO of the global leading investment firm Vista Equity Partners. Smith began his professional career as a chemical engineer out of Cornell University. He later switched career paths after attending Columbia Business School at Columbia University. At Goldman Sachs, Smith, with his STEM background, took the lead in San Francisco mergers and acquisitions (M&A) where his focus was on the then burgeoning technology sector. Smith was one of the first individuals to recognize the investment potential in the tech market. He helped finance deals with companies such as Microsoft and Apple as they were becoming the household names they are today.
In 2000, Smith set out as an entrepreneur to found Vista Equity Partners and with a small brilliant team, focused solely on investments in the software technology market. At that time software and software companies were overlooked in favor of investment in hardware companies. Smith’s foresight stemmed directly from his understanding of programming and his insights into the growth of software applications, which are now a ubiquitous backdrop to our daily digital lives in the form of encrypted financial transactions, communications platforms, healthcare and beyond. His understanding of how to pair technology with intellectual capital to transform great ideas into thriving businesses is how Smith became a billionaire.
Over the last two decades, Vista has grown to become a global leader investing in innovative enterprise software, data and technology-enabled businesses that are ready to scale with Vista’s backing.
Robert F. Smith’s Firsts
2016 was a significant year for Smith. That year:
- He became the very first African American to be chosen by fellow board members to lead Carnegie Hall as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
- He was also the first African American to donate a significant individual gift to the American Museum of African American History and Culture.
- Smith chose to personally provide Cornell University’s College of Engineering, his undergraduate alma mater, with $20 million, with an additional $10 million set aside for funding for STEM scholarships.
The year 2017 proved to be a banner follow up. In 2017:
- Smith was the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge, solidifying the direction of Smith’s growing philanthropic mission to benefit Black communities.
- He also gave $15 million to Columbia University for a downpayment on its Manhattanville campus expansion in Harlem, with the onus that the university would develop its inclusivity and diversity.
In 2018 Smith was named an “Honorary Park Ranger” by the National Park Foundation, a title that Smith cherishes among his plethora of honors.
Also in 2018:
- Smith gave to the Open Spaces Institute in keeping with his Giving Pledge promise, at that time the million dollar donation was the largest by an individual donor during the group’s 2018 campaign.
- Smith donated to establish the Robert Frederick Smith Precision Oncology Center of Excellence at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. The $2.5 million gift was the largest donation ever in support of prostate cancer research aimed at helping African American men.
Then in 2019, Smith made international headlines. That year:
- Smith became known as the business mogul who provided the Morehouse College class of 2019 with freedom from student loans. This first-of-its-kind gift catalyzed the formation of Student Freedom Initiative and helped to inspire other philanthropists to donate to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
What Did Robert F. Smith Invent?
Aside from being an entrepreneur and a philanthropist, Robert F. Smith is also an inventor. After earning his degree in chemical engineering at Cornell University, Smith worked for Kraft General Foods Inc. While there, Smith, along with other individuals, was granted two patents in the U.S. and two more in Europe. Both patents involved devices used for brewing coffee. The first in 1993, was for a “reusable filtration element.” The second patent issued in 1995, involved timing and introduction of steam to coffee brewing.
Read more about Smith’s honors and awards.