Robert F. Smith's gift of paying off the student loans of Morehouse College's 2019 graduating class stunned the school's students and faculty, but it was just the latest act of philanthropy by the quiet billionaire tech investment executive who is concerned that economic opportunities for African Americans have narrowed.
Smith made the surprise announcement Sunday while giving the commencement address at the college in Atlanta, and his gift is estimated at $20 million to $40 million.
Smith, 56, is the nation's richest African American -- ahead of Oprah Winfrey -- with a net worth of $5 billion, according to Forbes. He amassed his wealth as chief executive of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm in Austin, Texas, that he founded in 2000.
Vista Equity buys, grows and sells companies in the software and other technology fields. It manages $46 billion in investments with a portfolio of more than 50 companies that employ more than 60,000 people, according to the firm's website.
Smith seldom gives interviews and operated in relative obscurity until a few years ago. His profile began growing in step with his philanthropy, much of which is aimed at supporting the African American community, and with more public appearances. Vista Equity said Smith was not available to comment for this story.
Speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., this month, Smith warned that educational and economic opportunities for African Americans had narrowed since the time he and other Denver children were bused to recently desegregated schools in the area.
"There is only one of those folks that were on that bus that actually got incarcerated," he said. "We have doctors. We have lawyers. We have politicians. We have investors -- all because we had the opportunity to get into a great public school.
"That dynamic lived in my neighborhood. It doesn't live in that neighborhood today as much as it did then. The economic opportunity that was afforded me, I think, has changed. It has shrunk."
Smith said African American communities are as segregated today as in the 1950s, subjecting them to "economic underdevelopment" that doesn't allow them to fully participate in the economy.
He called for companies to invest in the problem, including by offering internships to underprivileged students who may not even be aware of the job opportunities created by the tech revolution.