When we talk about wealth, sometimes it can feel like Black people are consistently excluded from the conversation. Thanks to systemic and systematic discriminatory practices, countless Black Americans are often shut out of the surest path to personal wealth — property ownership. And often, when Black wealth is touted, it’s almost exclusively limited to celebrities from actors and directors like Tyler Perry to media moguls like Oprah Winfrey, and of course countless entertainers and athletes.
More importantly, when the conversation turns to billionaires, the number of Black people — male or female — that tops this list shrinks even further. But Black wealth isn’t limited to people that travel in celebrity circles. There are several Black entrepreneurs that are influencing the U.S. economy that have also accumulated quite a nest egg and reputation. In particular, the story behind the richest Black man in America is an inspiring one that shows you that our community is amazing whether they’re in the boardroom, behind or in front of the camera, or on the court.
Robert F. Smith: the Richest Black Man in America
The honor of being the richest Black man in America goes to none other than Robert F. Smith. You’re forgiven if he’s not a household name in your social circle as he’s a billionaire that flies under the radar. Still, Robert F. Smith is quite influential and his venture capital firm is behind some of the most innovative startups in the world. According to Forbes, his current net worth as of the publication of this article is valued at $8 billion, which makes him the 284th richest person in the world and 158th richest in the U.S. according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.
This self-made Texan billionaire is also the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge, a public commitment by the wealthiest in the world to give the bulk of their wealth away to philanthropic causes. He’s in good company with other ultra-wealthy individuals like Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and Mackenzie Bezos. Smith’s rise to wealth is what many would consider the embodiment of the American Dream.
From Humble, Service-Oriented Beginnings
As with many self-made success stories, Smith’s begins humbly. He was born December 1, 1962 to two school teachers and enjoyed a middle class upbringing in Denver, Colorado. As a child, he watched his parents that were active in the community. This began even from his infancy, with Smith recalling tales of his mom carrying him while attending Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington to listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington Mall.
The Opportunity of a Lifetime
Sometimes being at the right place at the right time, or being persistent is all that’s necessary to start someone on the right path. And this is exactly what happened for Robert F. Smith. While attending East High School in Denver, he applied for an internship at Bell Labs. Initially, he was denied the program because it was intended for college students. But after a prospective applicant from M.I.T. failed to show up, Smith was allowed to participate. He worked as a tester to determine reliability for semiconductors — sparking a curiosity for science and knowledge that would serve him well throughout his career. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in chemical engineering in 1985, and later continued to earn an MBA with a concentration in finance and marketing from Columbia University in 1994.
The Turning Point: Vista Equity Partners
Smith spent several years working at Goodyear, as well as Kraft Foods as a chemical engineer before pivoting in 1994 to become a technology investment banker at Goldman Sachs. He held a position at the banking giant for six years before deciding to strike out on his own in 2000. But even in 2018, he was already making waves, earning a spot on Vanity Fair’s New Establishment List which highlights movers and shakers who create innovative products or services.
In 2000, Smith went on to found Vista Equity Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm. He still sits as the principal founder, chairman, and chief executive. According to a 2021 Black Enterprise profile, Smith has consistently generated a roughly 30 percent rate of return for investors since the firm was founded. Even though Vista Equity Partners is an investment firm, it also has the unique position as an enterprise software company. As of 2019, because of various acquisitions, the firm was the fourth largest enterprise software company, following Oracle, Microsoft, and SAP.
Notably, Vista Equity Partners has a very diverse portfolio across a variety of categories including entertainment, human resources & compliance, insurance, real estate, energy, security, and hospitality to name a few. Some well-known prior and current investments include Klarna, Marketo, VividSeats, Worktango, and Accruent.
An Emphasis on Philanthropy
Robert F. Smith is the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge. But his philanthropic efforts didn’t start with that signature in 2017. In 2016, Smith pledged $20 million to the chemical engineering school at Cornell University — his alma mater. Meanwhile, he donated $15 million to the Columbia Business School in 2017 while also helping the school raise $500 million in additional funding for the Manhattanville campus relocation efforts. Additionally, Smith created The Robert F. Smith ‘94 Scholarship Fund for the business school and donated $10 million to launch it.
Philanthropic Efforts within the Community
Smith’s philanthropic endeavors weren’t just limited to his alma maters. He also focused on initiatives that bolster the Black community. In 2019, he donated $34 million by way of paying off the student loan debt of the graduating class from Morehouse College that year. This supported roughly 400 graduating seniors, and he made the announcement while also giving the commencement speech that year. Additionally, he pledged $1 million to create the college’s Robert Frederick Smith Scholars Program and another $560,000 to develop an outdoor study space on the campus.
He is also credited for donating $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. in 2016. At the time, this made him the largest individual donor for a museum. If you visit the museum, you’ll find the on-site Robert Frederick Smith Family Corona Pavilion, as well as the Robert F. Smith Explore Your Family History Center which works to train the next generation of museum curators. Likewise, there is a Robert F. Smith Internship Program at the museum that focuses on training digital and media preservation.
Get Inspired, Create Your Own Path
Success will look different for each person, but ultimately everyone is responsible for creating their own paths. Robert F. Smith’s story is that of someone who was dedicated to education and curiosity — but also takes advantage of opportunities as they arise. But more importantly, he doesn’t pull the ladder up behind him after reaching a new level of success. Instead, he reaches back to help the next generation. In his own words, the surest pathway to success is to be an expert. Just remember that this also means surrounding yourself with people who might be more knowledgable in a topic than you.