Robert F. Smith is the richest black man in America, and one of only four to currently have a net worth of more than one billion dollars. The son of two Denver-based school teachers, he earned degrees from Cornell University and Columbia Business School before founding Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that specializes in software companies, in 2000.
From the journey of becoming a black private equity titan, Smith knows one piece of conventional wisdom to be true: Life really is lonely at the top. Smith is now spending his $5 billion fortune to make sure it doesn’t stay that way.
Most famously, Smith volunteered to pay off the student loans of Morehouse College’s entire graduating class while delivering their commencement address in May. He later expanded the gift, which the historically black university said totaled $34 million, to cover any outstanding educational debt owed by the students’ parents.
Smith’s efforts don’t only benefit African Americans. Vista exclusively invests in software companies — a rarity in private equity — and has emphasized gender diversity initiatives at all of them. Vista also hosts an annual conference where female leaders from across the firm’s portfolio, representatives from Columbia Business School, and other tech executives discuss strategies for getting more women into their highest ranks. After moderating a panel at this year’s event on February 19 in New York City, Smith sat down for an interview with Business Insider.