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The Private Equity Founder Paying Off College Debt for a Class of Students

Robert F. Smith announced Sunday that he will take care of student loans for Morehouse College’s class of 2019. His philanthropy didn't start there.

Robert F. Smith, the founder of Vista Equity Partners Management, made headlines over the weekend when he announced that his family would provide a grant to the graduating seniors at Morehouse College to pay off their student loans.

The Atlanta-based college for black men hosted Smith as its commencement speaker on Sunday morning, when he made the surprise announcement, according to a video of the event. He said the class of 2019 was his to take care of.

“I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,” Smith said during the ceremony. “I want my class to look at these alums, these beautiful Morehouse Brothers, and let's make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward.” 

Smith’s announcement echoed quickly across the investment community. Venture capitalist Arlan Hamilton, who founded Backstage Capital, said Sunday on Twitter that “what he has just unlocked will reverberate for decades, if not more. Even if I never meet him, I will be forever grateful to him.” 

Smith founded Vista in 2000 after working in technology mergers and acquisitions as Goldman Sachs Group’s co-head of enterprise systems and storage, according to Vista’s website. His private equity firm, which has $46 billion in cumulative capital commitments, focuses on deals in the software industry.

As for his own education, Smith studied chemical engineering at Cornell University before earning a master’s degree in business from Columbia University, according to Vista’s website.

He has been involved in philanthropy in many ways. 

Smith took the Giving Pledge in 2017, joining others in promising to give away more than half of his wealth to charitable causes, according to the group’s website. Smith planned to focus on giving “to causes that support equality of opportunity for African Americans, as well as causes that cultivate ecological protection to ensure a livable planet for future generations,” the website shows. 

In January, Morehouse College announced that Smith made a $1.5 million gift to fund endowed scholarships and create a park for outdoor studying at the school.  

“I thought that if he was making that kind of commitment to that school, there was a chance he would do more,” Michael Mallory, the executive director of the Ron Brown Scholar Program, said Monday in a phone interview. The program awarded Smith in 2017 the Ronald H. Brown American Journey Award, which is granted to individuals who foster the achievements of others, according to its website.

“What it means for the kids when you can get out of college without debt, it’s a relief,” Mallory said. “You can be a better citizen, a better parent, a better worker without the stress early on.” 

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Smith serves as the chairman of Carnegie Hall and chairs the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, according to Vista’s website. He is also a trustee for the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco.

“He’s a community builder, he’s a bridge builder. He seems to be able to walk easily in different spaces,” Mallory said. He added that Smith is an affable man who “you would like, regardless of his wealth or status.” 

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