Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times

Robert F. Smith '85 is the founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm.

March 1, 2020

Cornell Engineering To Recognize Robert F. Smith ’85 With 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award

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America’s wealthiest black billionaire and founder of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, Robert F. Smith ’85 will be honored with the College of Engineering’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award in April.

The award — the college’s highest alumni honor — recognizes candidates who have demonstrated exceptional vision and leadership, exhibited a strong commitment to community and achieved success in their profession.

Smith was born and raised in Denver, before earning his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell.

“I have had the privilege of being a Cornell graduate with a degree in engineering,” Smith said in a 2016 statement. “I credit much to my career success to being an engineer by training. Engineers solve problems and fix things.”

That year, Cornell named the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering after Smith following a $50 million donation.

“Robert’s gift creates an extraordinary opportunity for Cornell,” the late president Elizabeth Garrett said at the time of the announcement. “Not only will it support a critical and rapidly expanding area of study … it will also allow the university to help address a national challenge: improving the representation of women and minorities in scientific research and development.”

Early in his career, Smith worked as an engineer for companies such as Kraft, Goodyear Tire and Rubber and later Goldman Sachs, where he advised on $50 billion worth of investments for some of the largest international tech companies. 

In 2000, Smith founded Vista Equity Partners, an Austin-based private equity and venture capital firm that specializes in backing software and tech-related startups. The company has amassed more than $52 billion in total investments, sporting a portfolio of more than 60 companies that collectively employ over 70,000.

Smith most recently made headlines for pledging an estimated $40 million to pay off the student loan debt of every Class of 2019 Morehouse College graduate. Calling it “a little fuel in your bus,” Smith made the surprise announcement during his 2019 commencement speech at the historically black college.

Other charitable contributions include $20 million to Washington D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the single largest by any individual donor. In 2017, Smith became the first African American billionaire to sign the “Giving Pledge,” a commitment to eventually donate more than 50 percent of his wealth to charity.

For his philanthropic efforts, Smith received the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2019.

The College of Engineering will formally present the award on Friday, April 24 at 4 p.m. at Statler Hall Auditorium in a public event that will feature remarks from President Martha E. Pollack.