Robert F. Smith attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, as a freshman in 1981 when there was slow but perceptible growth in the percentage of minority students studying engineering. The numbers of minorities enrolled in similar programs were climbing from around 3% in 1973 to about 9% in 1994. Around the same time, Cornell reported an 18% increase in Black students entering the university from 1980 to 1995. Still, Smith was one of very few minority students pursuing chemical engineering in his graduating class.
When Smith attended Columbia Business School at Columbia University in New York City in the early 1990s, only about 5% of Black adults 30 to 34 years old were enrolled in higher education programs in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of the students enrolled at an esteemed Ivy League school, Smith stood out not only for his age and intellect, but also because of the color of his skin.
Smith, who graduated with honors from his Columbia program in 1994 with an MBA, knows these data points personally. And as Smith’s ability to direct philanthropic dollars has increased, he has sought ways to honor his alma maters and create pathways to bring other minority students through the doors of these hallowed institutions to pursue degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
Smith has maintained ties to Cornell over the last decade by becoming a member of the Cornell Engineering College Council in 2012. In recognition of his immense impacts across business and philanthropy, he has been presented with the Distinguished Alumni Award twice, in 2020 and 2022.
In 2016, Smith contributed $20 million to Cornell University’s College of Engineering and another $10 million in Tech Scholars scholarships for African American and women students. Fund II Foundation, a nonprofit that supports Black and minority education and innovation, of which Smith is founding director and President, contributed an additional $20 million to the College of Engineering.
In 2017, to honor Smith not only for his contributions, but also his leadership, social justice advocacy and success as the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, Cornell renamed the engineering school the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
As Smith said during a talk following his acceptance of Cornell’s 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year Award, he was “deeply appreciative of all that Cornell has given me” and hoped he could “give some small fraction of that back.”
In May 2022, Smith contributed another $15 million to Cornell University’s College of Engineering in order to establish three funds: the Robert F. Smith Undergraduate Scholarship Fund, the Robert F. Smith Graduate Fellowship Fund and the Robert F. Smith Student Success Fund. The gift is designated to assist undergraduates who enter Cornell from urban high schools, and graduate students who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This gift provides a direct pathway for students facing systemic issues within STEM that have “historically prevented exceptional minds from realizing their full potential,” said Susan Daniel, the William C. Hooey Director of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell.
Daniel also described the gift as in keeping with Cornell founder Ezra Cornell’s mission of equitable education.
According to AfroTech, Smith said, “I chose to study at Cornell many years ago because I did my research. I learned about Ezra Cornell, Andrew Dickson White, and the tradition of Alpha Phi Alpha, my fraternity. Their example — their courage — drew me here.”
Since 2015, Smith has served on the Board of Overseers of Columbia Business School. And in 2017, he was awarded the Columbia University Black Business Students Association (BBSA) Distinguished Alumni Award. That same year, Smith gave $15 million to Columbia Business School to help it achieve its $500 million fundraising goal, which allowed the school to expand to Manhattanville, a neighborhood in West Harlem. At the time of the donation, Smith noted that he saw the gift as a means for the school to “expand the number of people and types of people who will benefit from a Columbia education.”
The University’s Manhattanville Campus opened in January 2022, with a “shared space for civic life” for the surrounding community, according to Columbia University. This idea is also in keeping with Smith’s intent when he provided the gift.
In January 2022, following the opening of the new campus extension, Smith contributed $10 million for the creation of the Robert F. Smith ’94 Scholarship Fund. The scholarships provided by the fund are intended to give approximately 200 graduate students at Columbia Business School full or partial tuition funding. Scholarships from the fund are designated for students “who have graduated from HBCUs, overcome systemic hardships or challenges in their academic pursuits, or demonstrated a strong commitment to engaging diversity,” according to the university.
“Those who are fluent in the language of business and technology will play an enormous role in building the future,” Smith said. “We need to make investments today in tomorrow’s talent pipeline, ensuring that it is open to those who have historically been left behind. This scholarship will do just that.”