Robert F. Smith is the richest black man in America, who until just a few years ago was practically unknown. The billionaire was the 2019 commencement speaker for Morehouse College who also received an honorary doctorate from the all-male historically black college during the same ceremony. He is the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software, data, and technology-driven companies. During his speech, the technology investor lifted a huge burden off the graduating class when he announced his desire to erase their college debt. Smith showed the graduates how to give back like a boss.
The announcement immediately drew stunned looks from faculty and students alike. Then the graduates broke into massive cheering and applause. Smith had already donated $1.5 million to the school but wanted to show them how a true boss gives back. Morehouse said it is the single largest gift to the college. He said:
On behalf of the eight generations of my family that has been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.
Acknowledging the huge sacrifice it takes for families to put students through college, Smith wanted to help lighten the load. The philanthropist just recently embraced a more public role after having avoided the spotlight for many years. This is just the latest substantial gesture from Smith who he has made major charitable contributions to various organizations such as his alma mater, Cornell University, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and other cultural institutions.
Smith, who has a passion for music, grew up in a mostly black, middle-class neighborhood in Denver. Both of his parents had Ph. Ds in education so he is no stranger to the challenges that accompany college expenses. He went to college at Cornell, studying chemical engineering, then took a job at Kraft General Foods. He received a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia, then worked at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, advising companies including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft.
According to a 2017 report from the Center for American Progress, black students are more likely to take out student loans than their white peers, and nearly half of black borrowers default on their student loans. The unequal burden of student loan debt further aggravates disparities, since a big loan payment can make it difficult to build a career, grow income, and achieve financial independence.
Unfortunately, the same report revealed that 12 years after entering college, the median African American borrower owed more than they originally borrowed. This begins a cycle of credit problems and more debt. Hence, by eliminating the graduates’ debt, the billionaire has directly impacted their future. Smith did not do the bare minimum for a few minutes of fame, he interrupted the cycle of struggling to make payments on federal student loans by giving back like a boss.
Billionaire Robert F. Smith announced to a class of about 400 graduating seniors at Atlanta’s Morehouse College that he and his family plan to pay off the entire class’s student loans. In true social media fashion, many celebrated this generous act of kindness while others found ways to criticize. Kudos to the philanthropist for going above and beyond to give back like a boss.
By Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
AJC: Morehouse commencement speaker to pay off Class of 2019’s student loans
NY Times: Who Is Robert F. Smith, the Man Paying Off Morehouse Graduates’ Loans?
American Progress: New Federal Data Show a Student Loan Crisis for African American Borrowers
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