Robert Smith Has Always Seen The Bigger Picture
Photo Credit: ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MAY 19: Robert F. Smith gives the commencement address during the Morehouse College 135th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 19, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Robert Smith Has Always Seen The Bigger Picture

On Sunday at Morehouse’s commencement ceremony, hundreds of future alumni got life changing news: Their student debt would be paid off, in full.

Robert Smith — the world’s richest African American and one of the country’s wealthiest billionaires — made the announcement to a crowd of joyous, twenty something Black men. Now their futures will be lived out without the mountain of student debt that most graduates leave school with. 

“On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith said before he announced his gift.

It’s unclear exactly how much the the donation will end up being, but the estimated total could be around $40 million, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Smith is a mainstay in the tech industry. His firm Vista Equity Partners is one of the world’s leading suppliers of enterprise software and manages about $46 billion in private equity. Smith himself has amassed a fortune of over $4 billion.

While his generosity will be talked about widely over the next week on the internet and talks shows, the billionaire has been known for his commitment to using his money to help others. Smith follows the mantra of several Black business titans of the past, this thought of doing well while doing good for others in his community at the same time. For some, Smith’s large donation to Morehouse may come as a surprise, but for many, especially those in the Black community,  the lengths of his generosity have been seen widely over the past several years.

Earlier this year, he donated $1.5 million to Morehouse for a scholarship fund and a new park. He also donated $20 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the second biggest gift under Oprah, who donated $21 million.

Before the donation, Smith was seemingly unknown to most of the general public. In fact, when he made the donation, some people at NMAAHC didn’t even know who he was, according to the Washington Post.

“We kept wondering, ‘Who is this Robert Smith?’” said Adrienne Brooks, director of development for the museum. “Meeting Smith became a priority,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s founding director. “We wanted to meet him. And soon,” Bunch said, laughing.

-The Washington Post

Smith has become much more public since his gift to the Smithsonian in 2016. Later that same year the school of Chemical and Bimolecular engineering at Cornell, Smith’s Alma Mater, was renamed in his honor after the Fund II Foundation — an organization he’s the founding president of — donated $50 million to support Black engineers. He also recently spoke at the world economic forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In 2017, Smith signed the Giving Pledge, an initiative where he and several other billionaires pledged to give away large chunks of their fortunes. In fact, when he signed the pledge he said he would commit to causes that helped African Americans and uttered a quote that seemingly summed up the way he thinks about philanthropy and giving. 

“I will never forget that my path was paved by my parents, grandparents and generations of African-Americans whose names I will never know,” Smith said. “Their struggles, their courage, and their progress allowed me to strive and achieve. My story would only be possible in America, and it is incumbent on all of us to pay this inheritance forward.”

It’s this quote that truly speaks to the level of generosity we’ve seen from Smith over the years. It’s also the only one that, before yesterday, gave us a clear window into the larger philanthropic mission Smith has.

Pouring back into the Black community is something Smith has always known. He recalled to the Washington Post in 2016 how he would watch his mother write a check to the United Negro College Fund every month. For some people, news of yesterday’s donation will either be the first time they’ve heard of Smith, or the first they’ve heard of him making such a large donation specifically for the Black community. But for those who have followed his career, this level of generosity is unsurprising.

Smith’s donation is the largest made to an HBCU from a living donor, ever. The record was previously a $30 million gift to Spelman College from Ronda Stryker, head of the Stryker Corporation, a Fortune 500 company and one of the world’s biggest medical tech firms. 

In America alone, there’s over $1.5 trillion of student loan debt — the largest of any loan category, including automative loans and credit card debt — and that total is expected to rise. The picture is even grimmer for Black people pursuing a college degree. According to the Center for American Progress, more than 80 percent of African American students take out some kind of student loan. Almost half of student borrowers default on their loans 12 years after starting college with the majority owing more than the amount they borrowed in the first pace.

While the gift from Smith is amazing for the students graduating from Morehouse and uplifting for advocates who want to see student loan debt erased, the broader issue of student debt is one that can really only be solved through policy changes, which a lot Democratic candidates have been pitching as we inch closer to 2020.

Sure, if more tech billionaires stepped up to the plate like Smith did, it would wipe out a lot of the student debt in this country, or even alleviate it altogether. However, as Adam Harris, an education reporter for The Atlantic points out, systematic issues like this just need a deeper level of attention.

“The thing about generosity, though, is that it is not a salve for systemic problems. Smith, who has a net worth of $4.5 billion, could eliminate debt for thousands more—and some parents hope that he will. (“Maybe he’ll come back next year,” the father of one Morehouse graduate, who has another son who is currently a junior, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) But one billionaire can only help so many, and more than 40 million people in the United States have student loans. And no graduation gift can help the millions of young people who never complete their degree.”

-The Atlantic

But imagine, for a second, if the tech ecosystem as a whole committed to making things easier for the next generation of students in the same way Smith just did. In 2018, Facebook was worth $500 billion. Microsoft is worth over $750 billion, and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is worth close to $740 billion. They have the money to help with the student loan crisis that’s plaguing the U.S., but these companies and the people running them donate to their own charities. Imagine what could happen if they donated to the millions of student borrowers. 

I’ve seen people on Twitter making jokes like, “Well (insert wealthy person here) is speaking at my graduation. Where is my check?”

Funny, yes. But with the recent gift from Smith, it may not be a such a wild thought. He may not know it, but he may have encouraged other tech billionaires to step up to the plate as well.

The class of 2019 at Morehouse got the chance to see how life-changing generosity from the tech industry can be. Hopefully others can experience the feelings of joy, relief, and optimism that nearly 400 Black people are right now.