Behind the Billionaire

A Man of Faith, Wisdom, and Generosity

By R. L. Witter

Raised in Northeast Denver in “a community that was filled with hard working folks from various walks of life,” Smith
came by his generous spirit honestly. “My mother instilled in me the importance of giving,” he recalled. “And even though we did not have much growing up, she wrote a check every month to the United Negro College Fund.” That act would inform Robert’s life in a way that would impact hundreds of other Black families in America.

Dr. William Robert Smith and Dr. Sylvia Myrna Smith were both teachers. While they weren’t financially rich, inside their home was a wealth of love, knowledge, culture, and faith. “My parents both embraced and challenged my brother and me, pushing us to think critically and realize our full potential, but always with a great deal of support and love,” Smith said. “Among other things, my father taught me to love music—he played percussion and the piano — and when he was home the house was often filled with the sounds of records playing jazz, classical, opera, and all things in between. My mother instilled in me the importance of giving. Both were active in the community and I learned from them how family can extend far beyond the walls of the home.”

That family extended into a neighborhood comprised of “dentists, teachers, politicians, Pullman porters, contractors and pharmacists — all focused on serving the Black community and providing a safe and nurturing environment for the kids in our neighborhood,” Smith explained. “One of the things I’m most proud of … was how we all grew to become hardworking professionals ourselves — so many are now elected officials, doctors, lawyers, and business leaders.”

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”— Jeremiah 29:11 ESV

One member of the community may have unwittingly set the trajectory for young Robert Smith and his friends to aim for the stars. “There was a man in our community who knew about rocketry, and so he started an unofficial ‘rocket club.’ He would teach us about the inner workings of rockets and how to make them,” explained Smith. “As it turns out, a significant proportion of the kids in that unofficial rocket club, including myself, went on to become engineers. It was an important formative experience for each of us, and it planted the seed of an idea for me of what I could go on to become.”

Smith watered that seed with his own mixture of dedication and tenacity. He applied for an internship for college students despite being in high school. He called to plead his case every Friday for five months; when a college student didn’t show up, Smith took his spot. That seed bore fruit in the form of a degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University, then grew into a career at Kraft where Smith earned patents for designs in coffee brewing. His aspirations were greater than that and he recalled the support he received and the confidence instilled in him from his family and community. He decided business school would be his next accomplishment. “I was inspired seeing magazine covers with Black business leaders like Ray McGuire, Reginald Lewis, and Stan O’Neal. At a Black Business Student Association event at Columbia Business School, I met John Utendahl, who was already an icon in the investment world,” Smith recalled. “He asked if I had considered investment banking… With encouragement from John, and Ray McGuire, who took the time to advise me, I joined Goldman Sachs. I became determined to join the ownership class and to found Vista Equity Partners. In the Black community, we don’t take on enough risk. This is so important. We need to honor the risks that our ancestors took—without risk, our rewards will be limited.”

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done.” — Proverbs 19:17 NIV

Smith’s hard work, generosity, risk-taking, and faith have been rewarded handsomely. Among a population of 7.9 billion people on Earth, Smith is one of only 3,288 billionaires, one of 15 Black billionaires, and the only Black one who made his money in private equity. But despite the trappings of wealth and fame, Smith holds close the lessons of his youth and incorporated his parents’ words and methods into raising his own children. “The importance of giving back, of deriving strength from and contributing to one’s community, and of pushing yourself to realize your full potential are all lessons my parents instilled in me. And they are the foundation on which I have built the three key ‘maxims’ I have drilled into the hearts of my children,” he explained. “The first one of these maxims is ‘You are enough,’ by which I mean they are enough to bring about the change they want to see in the world. And that statement is important to remind your kids and anyone else you love because everyone needs to be reminded that what they have to bring to the world is enough to make a lasting impact on it.”

His second maxim draws from Smith’s love of problem solving. “Discover the joy of figuring things out. It is the engineer in me, and a lesson I really came to appreciate early in my career as an intern at Bell Labs. There’s so much we can do – individually and collectively – to make a difference and doing it with passion is ultimately fulfilling.” His third maxim is “simply that love is all that matters. It’s the answer to all problems and when we act with love in our hearts, there’s nothing we cannot overcome.”

“Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”— Luke 6:38 ESV

Now in his fifties, Smith’s life is filled with both professional and personal accomplishments, which include his philanthropy and the legacy he is cultivating with and will leave behind for his children. “I’ve found the most rewarding philanthropic pursuits come from the time I devote,” Smith opined. “It meant a great deal to me to be able to give the young men of the Morehouse College Class of 2019 the freedom to pursue their dreams without the burden of student debt. But what has been even more meaningful has been the time that I get to spend every month, when the members of that graduating class and I gather on a Zoom call for an open and honest discussion about life and their responsibilities and what it means to be a good citizen in today’s world.” Smith makes a point to remind people generosity isn’t only about money, rather it’s also about time and purpose. “Your time can often be the most valuable thing you can give to someone else . . . Not everyone has the resources to make large financial contributions. But everyone can give their time.”

Having touched on the wealth of love, knowledge, and culture that has informed his life and career, Smith ended talking about his faith. “I try to implement values of doing well by doing good in my daily life, starting every morning by meditating and thinking about how I can fill my cup and what my purpose is. My faith is a central pillar that grounds me and motivates me to serve and lift others.” He continued, “I like to say that doing better in business is, of course, really good. And doing good in life is better. But doing both is best. So be thoughtful about being ‘best’ in all that you do and in all the organizations you take part in.”

Robert F. Smith: educated, accomplished, wealthy, committed to helping those less fortunate, particularly Black people, and guided by his faith. Godspeed, Mr. Smith.