Robert F. Smith '85

Cornell Alumnus Robert F. Smith (‘85) is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners

Robert F. Smith ‘85 is an engineer, innovator, investor and active philanthropist. He is also the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell’s College of Engineering and has continued to support the university throughout his professional career. During a fireside chat with Lance R. Collins, the former Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, Smith recalls fondly that, “Cornell was such a wonderful experience in a fundamental time in my life,” and added, “Cornell believes in rigor. We bring a different degree of rigor.” His experience as an engineering student helped him to learn the work ethic and competitive drive he would need to succeed. These Cornellian characteristics remain with him today. Smith further echoed the importance of these characteristics stating, “I would choose a Cornell engineer over any other student.” As an undergraduate, he explained his studies taught him “the importance of sticking with problems and thinking them through.”

A Proud Cornellian’s Continued Support

A member of the Cornell Engineering College Council, Smith was the 2020 recipient of Cornell Engineering’s Distinguished Alumni Award, which recognizes alumni who have broken traditional boundaries to transform society, and whose professional accomplishments bring distinction to the college. He was also one of three Cornellians recognized by TIME Magazine’s list of the 100 “Most Influential People” of 2020. In 2017, he was named Cornell’s Entrepreneur of the Year, an award that honors a Cornellian who exemplifies entrepreneurial achievement, community service and high ethical standards. Smith is also a member of the Cornell Tech Council, who serve as the primary governance group for Cornell Tech and a subsidiary body of the Cornell University Board of Trustees.

Smith's Commitment and Impact

Individual contributions from Robert F. Smith and the Fund II Foundation, of which he is the founding director and President, resulted in a combined gift of $50 million that was donated to Cornell Engineering’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The donation would support chemical and biomolecular engineering and African-American and female students at Cornell University’s College of Engineering. The late President of Cornell University, Elizabeth Garrett, called Smith’s gift “extraordinary.” She noted this gift would allow the university to address the poor representation of women and minority students in engineering programs.

Through undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, and diversity initiatives, Smith’s commitment to the School has allowed for the creation of additional opportunities for faculty and student learning. Research projects, programs engaging high school students in STEM fields and programs to foster community connection among students and alumni are a few of the dynamic Smith Initiatives. Helping to prepare the next generation of critical thinkers who will address current global challenges, current Smith Initiatives that have and will continue to make an impact include:

  • Atom5
  • Bioreactors - The Future of Biotechnology and Bioprocess Engineering
  • 4C: Cornell ChemE Crash Course
  • Computational Optimization in Chemical Engineering Textbook
  • Graduate Alumni Reunion
  • Hydrothermal liquefaction on wastewater sludge
  • Integrated Biomanufacturing of Therapeutic Proteins
  • Keeping Ezra's Promise: Any person...any study
  • Science Blender Podcast

According to Smith, the success he found after graduating with a degree from Cornell’s engineering program helped inspire the gift. His hope was that the gift would make the same experience available to a more diverse group of students. He stated, “My direct intention here is to work directly with Cornell Tech and Cornell Engineering, in New York City and in Ithaca, to create direct on-ramps for African-Americans and young women to enter tech so that they can help lead us into the fourth industrial revolution.” To honor Smith for the generous gift, the School was later renamed “Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,” as well as the Robert Frederick Smith Tech Scholars Program, spanning Cornell Engineering and Cornell Tech.

Career and Philanthropy 

After graduating from Cornell University, Smith began his career at Goodyear Tire and Rubber, followed by Kraft General Foods. He left Kraft General Foods to pursue his MBA from Columbia University, where Smith serves on the Board of Overseers. Following his tenure at Kraft, he worked at Goldman Sachs, where he specialized in investing for technology companies. At Goldman Sachs, Smith had a key role in mergers and acquisitions including Apple, Texas Instruments and eBay. In 2000, Smith left Goldman Sachs to start his own investment firm, Vista Equity Partners. Vista exclusively invests in enterprise software companies. Smith’s professional recognition include being named among Forbes’ list of the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds and a member of the Bloomberg 50 in 2019.

Smith has dedicated much of his life to philanthropy. He helps to support the mission of the Fund II Foundation, which provides grants to public charities to promote cultural, artistic, human rights, environmental, and other public-minded efforts. He is the first African-American to sign the Giving Pledge and gifted $20 million, the largest by an individual donor, to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. With the Museum, the Robert F. Smith Internship Program was established to provide opportunities for underprivileged individuals pursuing careers in the cultural sector.

Honors and Awards

Smith is a recipient of UNCF’s President’s Award, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Award and a 2019 Inductee to the Texas Business Hall of Fame. He received an honorary degree at the Morehouse College 135th Annual Commencement Ceremony, where Smith also announced his commitment to eliminate the student loan debt for the entire 2019 graduating class. In addition to being a featured commencement speaker, Smith has been invited to speak at a variety of industry events and conferences. He has participated in events for The Economic Club of Washington D.C. and is also a recurring participant of The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

His life-changing gift to the Morehouse College graduates earned worldwide attention and is only one example of Smith’s generosity. In the same year, the Carnegie family of institutions welcomed Smith as a recipient of the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy. According to the Carnegie family of institutions, his bold philanthropy aligns directly with Carnegie’s vision, and continues to inspire others to give back. In 2020 Smith announced an additional personal donation of $50 million to the Student Freedom Initiative to match the original gift provided by Fund II Foundation. In December of the same year, the National Society of Black Certified Accountants (NSBCPA) announced a major gift from Smith, who pledged $1 million to support NSBCPA’s and Certified Public Accountants virtual CPA exam review program initiative.

When asked about his generosity, Smith said he feels he has a responsibility to give back. “I take that responsibility seriously,” he said, “to bring all of the education and dedication and effort to create in this world, in this economic structure, opportunity that I can then drive into philanthropic fabric to do what I think is the most important thing on this planet, which is to liberate the human spirit.”

Smith's Commitment and Impact

In May 2022, Smith announced a new $15 million gift to the College of Engineering, with a focus on assisting undergraduate students who come to Cornell from urban high schools and graduate students who attended historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In addition to the undergraduate scholarship fund and graduate student fellowship fund, the gift will establish the Robert F. Smith Student Success Fund to provide support for student participation in national conferences, professional development training, connections with employers, mentoring programs, and immersive learning opportunities. In announcing the gift, Smith said “My goal has always been to lift up and provide opportunity for those who have historically faced barriers to success. My hope is that these funds will elevate more students and afford them the opportunity to attend my alma mater and pursue careers in STEM, as well as continue to support the diverse pipeline of extraordinary talent that Cornell produces.”

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