With a generous gift of $15 million, Robert F. Smith ’94 has helped Columbia Business School reach its $500 million fundraising goal, securing the School’s down payment on its future home. In Manhattanville, Columbia Business School will inhabit two new state-of-the-art buildings in the University’s Manhattanville Campus. Below, Smith answers questions about the School’s move to Manhattanville, his philanthropic choices, and the importance of technology.
Columbia Business: Can you talk about your approach to philanthropy and what inspires you to give?
Robert Smith: 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. So I look for people who are actually going to change our planet. I look for organizations that can change ideology at scale and impact people in large numbers. I think that's the way that we as a society will move forward. And 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.
CB: Why is this the right time to make this gift to Columbia Business School?
RS: Columbia is at an interesting transition point. It has the opportunity to expand its reach and, through that reach, expand the number of people and types of people who will benefit from a Columbia education. Columbia is one of the most international universities on the planet. It is in the most international city in the world, in the City of New York. And a gift to this institution, I think, will have a tremendous impact on the global community and, of course, on the Manhattanville community. 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.
CB: How do you envision management education in general — and at Columbia Business School specifically — changing in the future?
RS: The world I get to live in is the world of technology. And to be focused on Columbia's future is to thoughtfully embrace — and take a leadership role in — the way that technology is going to educate people going forward. Columbia will be able to shape what software and technology will mean in terms of how to teach, how to train, how to go from one to many. There's a lot of fear about technology in some respects. I get a chance to spend time talking about artificial intelligence and hear things like, “Oh, will it take over jobs and job creation, and man will no longer have a role in his own destiny.” The fact is, we will always have a role. But we need to ensure that there are institutions that understand the moral and ethical implications of embracing technology and drive technology to the benefit of mankind and not the detriment. And Columbia is in a good place to be a leader in that role.
CB: You spoke recently at the School’s Black Business Students Association conference. What is important for the next generation of African American business leaders to be thinking about right now?
RS: This is the first time in history where you don't have to necessarily own resources in order to create wealth and then drive that wealth back into your own community. Up until now, you had to, in many cases, own land or have access to water or, in some cases, access to people — owning people — in order to create wealth and value. I look forward to this next generation of African American students embracing the promise of technology, where we have unlimited computing power, memory, and capabilities that can help develop products, businesses, and services to expand wealth in the African American community. And then that wealth can translate into an uplifting environment for that community. I look forward to these younger students really embracing the promise that is technology, which is going to enable the African American community to continue to move forward and rise up and achieve economic parity and opportunity parity.
CB: What do you hope your personal legacy will be?
RS: I have five children, and I hope my legacy is manifest through them. I have three rules that they call “Dad's Rules.” And I hope that beyond what I might leave them materially, these are the things that really matter to them. The first one is, “You are enough.” I'm trying to help them understand that they are enough to go accomplish and achieve their goals, their objectives. They don't necessarily need anyone to tell them that they are enough—they are enough to manifest that themselves.
The second lesson, or rule, that I have is, “Discover the joys of figuring things out.” There is tremendous joy that comes from solving a problem and tremendous joy that comes from accomplishment. And I hope that my children and others I influence have the ability to experience that joy as I have.
The last rule is, “Love is all that matters.” [I want my children] to understand that they need to be a part of the human experience, and that love is the most important part of that human experience. I hope that they are good people. I hope that they are honest people. I hope that they are just people. I hope that they find things that inspire them, and I hope that they commit themselves to those things. And I hope that beyond my immediate family I was able to inspire some people to become their best selves and to take some risks and move their communities forward. So, hopefully that's what my legacy will be.