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How Robert F. Smith Turned a Billionaire

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From Robert F. Smith’s 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.

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.

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.

Smith Is Giving His Fortune, and Inspiration, Away for FreeRobert 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.

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.”

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