Billionaire Robert F. Smith has lived his life mostly under the radar, granting limited interviews about how he’s built a private equity empire and net worth of $2.5 billion.
The chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners is No. 274 on the Forbes 400 List of Richest Americans, and richer than basketball legend Michael Jordan and BET founder Bob Johnson.
Although the 54-year-old Smith has kept his life and work mostly behind the scenes, his business moves to support the Black community are hard to ignore. Smith’s $20 million gift to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture came in only second to Oprah Winfrey.
He’s also backed up his commitment to increasing the number of Black students in STEM education with support for youth coding programs and a $50 million gift to his alma mater, Cornell University, to bolster African-American and female students in the College of Engineering.
He isn’t just writing checks. Speaking to young Black professionals and graduate students at the Columbia Black Business Student Association’s 35th annual conference, Smith, a Columbia Business School alum, dropped knowledge on everything from economic empowerment to how to build the next generation of leaders in the Black community.
Here are five keys to success – and words of wisdom – from Smith’s candid talk:
1. Be an expert at your craft.
“The most important thing you can do as a young person is to become an expert. There is no substitute for becoming the best at your craft.”
Despite being repeatedly turned away when applying for a job at Bell Labs because he was still in high school, Smith finally got an offer after an older student didn’t show up. Smith went on to earn a chemical engineering degree from Cornell. Smith knew his stuff, and when it was time to ask for a seat at the table, he could deliver based on his merits and persistence.
2. Create your own.
“I started Vista because I knew no private equity firm would hire me. I saw what they were looking for…so I created my own firm.”
After graduating from Columbia Business School in 1994, Smith landed a coveted job at Goldman Sachs, focusing on technology mergers and acquisitions. He successfully led those efforts for six years but eventually wanted to venture out on his own. In 2000 Smith took a leap of faith to start his own private equity firm focused on software and technology-enabled businesses.
The fact that Smith, a double Ivy-League graduate with a master’s degree in business, felt he could run into roadblocks shows that even when you are qualified, realizing your unique vision might mean creating your own path. As of last year, Smith’s company managed more than $26 billion dollars in assets and is considered to be one of the top private equity firms in the country.
3. Be an example to others.
“I now have the ability to inspire some young African-Americans to say, ‘I can now go actually do this.’ ”
Smith remembers in his younger days reading a spread in Black Enterprise Magazine about Black business leaders. The staggering amount of money they earned blew him away. More than their net worth, Smith says seeing their faces inspired curiosity about their work and made him feel he could pursue the same path.
Once he earned his first million at age 35, Smith said he kept a low profile “by design,” choosing to develop his skills and company rather than seek limelight. After being featured on the cover of Forbes magazine in 2015, that privacy went out the window. Just as the stories of Black business leaders inspired him then, he wants to do the same for others.
4. Know your purpose.
“Be thoughtful and conscious about what is your highest and best use.”
In college, Smith enjoyed his social life with his brothers from Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity on Friday nights, and would get up as early at 6 a.m. the next day to tutor youth. Smith’s parents were both schoolteachers who supported civil rights issues. He suggested that not everyone has to be rich or have a high-powered job to make a lasting difference. Asking yourself which of your talents and gifts inspire you to get up in the morning is time well spent.
5. Invest in the future.
“(Technology is) the greatest wealth-building opportunity in the history of the planet.”
Smith insists there is a lot at stake if Black people miss out on the current boom in STEM. He said in the same way that football scouts start early in finding young athletic talent in elementary school, Black communities should invest resources in uplifting our own young tech stars. When that happens, “leaders will emerge.”