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Founder, Chairman, and CEO, Vista Equity Partners, Texas
Robert F. Smith, a ‘94 graduate of Columbia Business School (CBS) and member of the School’s Board, is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners (Vista). Smith made headlines around the world as the debt-liberating commencement speaker for the Morehouse College Class of 2019. 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 investment strategy. 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 expansion into the Manhattanville neighborhood in West Harlem. The new state-of-the-art building in Manhattanville opened on January 18, 2022. At the time of the donation, 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 was also 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 again gave back to the Columbia Business School in 2022, gifting $10 million to establish a scholarship program for students from underserved backgrounds or who are graduating from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Through the scholarships, Columbia will have access to highly qualified graduates that have been historically overlooked by non-HBCUs.
“Those who are fluent in the language of technology will play an enormous role in building the future," said Smith. “We need to make investments today in tomorrow's talent pipeline, ensuring that it is open to those who have historically been left behind. These scholarships will do just that. [Columbia Business School] saw something in me and helped propel me in my career, and I know that they will continue to empower the leaders of the future.”
Early Career and Education
Born in Denver, Colorado, Smith 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 the technology sector. He oversaw mergers and acquisitions at large technology companies including Apple, Microsoft and Texas Instruments. After six years at Goldman Sachs, Smith founded Vista Equity Partners in 2000. Since then, Vista has grown to become a global investment leader that invests exclusively in enterprise software, data and technology-enabled businesses. As his success grew, so too did Smith’s sense of social responsibility, prompting philanthropic outreach with the Fund II Foundation. In 2017, Smith was named by Forbes as one of the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds. In 2020, Smith’s pioneering philanthropic and business innovations saw him named to the TIME100 list of the most influential people.
In addition to his accomplishments throughout his career, Smith has focused on philanthropy. 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, which was 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. And, Smith paid $34 million to eliminate student loan debts for 2019 Morehouse College graduates, enabling them and their families to reinvest in their communities and themselves. The gift helped spark the Student Freedom Initiative, an income-contingent funding program aimed to ensure equity in higher education.
A Carnegie Hall Trustee since 2013, Smith was elected as Chairman of Carnegie Hall in 2016. He is also the first African American to hold that position. 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 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 a board member of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and an executive producer for the award winning podcast, Black History in Two Minutes (or so).