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Founder, Chairman, and CEO, Vista Equity Partners, Texas
A ’94 graduate of Columbia Business School (CBS) and member of the School’s Board of Overseers, Robert F. Smith is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. When he began attending CBS, Smith had enrolled in the School’s joint JD/MBA program, but after connecting with industry leaders through conversations and interviews, he grew an interest in mergers and acquisitions. Smith went on to earn his MBA with honors and was elected as his class’s commencement speaker. His concentration was in Finance and Marketing.
In 2017, he gave back to Columbia with a $15 million gift to complete the School’s $500 million fundraising goal for its move to Manhattanville. Smith emphasized the opportunity for CBS to “expand its reach and, through that reach, expand the number of people and types of people who will benefit from a Columbia education.” He described the impact of this gift by saying, “It is a good time to be part of this transition, because Manhattanville will stand the test of time; it will be viewed as one of the major expansion points of this great institution.” Recognized for his industry leadership and commitment to the community, the university awarded Smith the 2017 Distinguished Leadership in Business Award. He has also been the recipient of the Columbia BBSA Distinguished Alumni Award.
When asked about his approach to philanthropy and what inspires him to give, Smith said, “The point to philanthropy, for me, is to think about the activities or institutions that move society forward in ways that either inspire the soul or push the mind to creative limits.” He went on to say, “I hope that my giving during my lifetime will have a meaningful impact in the world, in this country, and in the communities that I get a chance to serve — like Columbia.
Smith was born in Denver, Colorado, and attended Cornell University to study engineering, graduating in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree. He went on to work as an engineer for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and Kraft General Foods. While at Kraft, Smith earned two United States and two European patents, including ones for a coffee brewer filtration device and a coffee brewing element. He left Kraft to study at CBS.
Following his time at Columbia, he worked in technology investment banking for Goldman Sachs in New York City. Smith later moved to San Francisco in 1997 and was the first person in the city at Goldman to focus solely on technology mergers and acquisitions. He oversaw mergers and acquisitions at large technology companies including Apple, Microsoft and Texas Instruments. After six years at Goldman Sachs, Smith founded the investment firm Vista Equity Partners in 2000. In his role, he directs Vista’s investment strategy and decisions, firm governance and investor relations. In 2017, Smith was named by Forbes as one of the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds.
In addition to his accomplishments throughout his career, Smith has built a reputation as a philanthropist. Smith is the founding director and President of the Fund II Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the African-American experience, safeguarding human rights, providing music education, preserving the environment while promoting the benefits of the outdoors, and sustaining critical American values. He is known for making many generous donations to notable organizations, such as his gift of $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the largest by an individual donor. The Museum also established the Robert F. Smith Internship Program. In 2017, Smith signed the Giving Pledge, a movement of philanthropists who commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes. He was the first African-American to sign the pledge.
A Carnegie Hall Trustee since 2013, Smith was elected as Chairman of Carnegie Hall in 2016. For continuing to support the organization throughout his career and for his various humanitarian efforts, the Carnegie family of institutions honored Smith with the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2019. Smith has also been a recipient of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Award; Texas Business Hall of Fame 2019 Inductee; SEO’s Reginald F. Lewis Achievement Award; the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Robert Toigo Foundation; the Ripple of Hope Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights; UNCF’s President’s Award; and the Ron Brown Scholar Program American Journey Award.
A member of the Cornell Engineering College Council, Smith was honored in 2020 with Cornell Engineering's Distinguished Alumni Award. Smith is also Chairman of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and a Trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco.
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