5 keys for success from African-American billionaire Robert F. Smith

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

If you still haven’t heard of billionaire Robert F. Smith, it’s time to start paying attention.  

The Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners has lived his life mostly under the radar, granting limited interviews about how he’s built a private equity empire and net worth of $2.5 billion. He is No. 274 on the Forbes 400 List of Richest Americans and is richer than basketball legend Michael Jordan and BET founder Bob Johnson.

Although the 54-year-old Smith has kept his life and work mostly behind the scenes, his business moves to support the black community are hard to ignore.

Smith’s $20 million gift to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) came only second to Oprah Winfrey. He’s also backed up his commitment to increasing the number of black students in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) with support for youth coding programs and a $50 million gift to his alma mater, Cornell University, to bolster African-American and female students in the College of Engineering.

And he isn’t just writing checks.

Recently, hundreds of young black professionals and graduate students filled the International House at the Columbia Black Business Student Association’s 35th annual conference to hear him speak. Smith, a Columbia Business School alum, dropped knowledge on everything from economic empowerment to how to build the next generation of leaders in the black community.

Here are five key truths for success that came out of Smith’s candid talk:

  1. Be an expert at your craft.

“The most important thing you can do as a young person is to become an expert. There is no substitute for becoming the best at your craft.”

Smith grew up in the era of segregation and was a product of school bussing. While still in high school, he had a knack for computer science and called the offices of Bell Labs to ask for a summer internship normally reserved for upperclassmen. They said “No.”

So he continued to call them weekly for five months. Despite being repeatedly turned away and eventually ignored altogether, one day, he finally got an offer after an older student didn’t show up.

Smith would go on to earn a chemical engineering degree from Cornell University.

Lesson? Smith knew his stuff. And when it was time to ask for a seat at the table, he could deliver based on his merits and persistence.

  1. Create your own.

“I started Vista because I knew no private equity firm would hire me. I saw what they were looking for… So I created my own firm.”

After graduating from Columbia Business School with honors in 1994, Smith landed a coveted job at Goldman Sachs, focusing on technology mergers and acquisitions.  

He successfully led those efforts for six years but eventually wanted to venture out on his own. Smith recalls feeling like no private equity firms would look at him as a desirable candidate.

In 2000, Smith took a leap of faith to start his own private equity firm focused on software and technology-enabled businesses.

The fact that Smith, a double Ivy-League graduate with a masters degree in business, felt he could run into roadblocks shows that even when you are qualified, realizing your unique vision might mean creating your own path.

As of last year, Smith’s company managed more than $26 billion dollars in assets and is considered to be one of the top private equity firms in the country.

  1.   Be an example to others.

“I now have the ability to inspire some young African-Americans to say, ‘I can now go actually do this.’”

Smith remembers in his younger days reading a spread in Black Enterprise magazine about black business leaders. The staggering amount of money they earned blew him away.

More than their net worth, Smith says seeing their faces inspired curiosity about their work and made him feel he could pursue the same path.

Even once he earned his first million at 35-years-old, Smith says he kept a low profile “by design,” choosing to develop his skills and company rather than seek limelight.

After being featured on the cover of Forbes magazine in 2015, that privacy really went out the window.

“I lost the ability to go to a movie with my wife and kids,” Smith says. “It comes at a cost.”

But for Smith, the trade-off is well worth it. Just as the stories of black business leaders inspired him then, he wants to do the same for others.

  1.  Know your purpose.

“Be thoughtful and conscious about what is your highest and best use.”

Smith recalled enjoying social life during his college years with his brothers from Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, on Friday nights, then getting up as early at 6 a.m. the next day to tutor youth in the Ithaca area.

“You didn’t get paid for that,” Smith remembers. “But we also knew because of the divinity of where we’d come from that somebody had done that for us.”

Smith’s parents were both schoolteachers who supported civil rights issues.

He suggested to the crowd at Columbia Business School that not everyone has to be rich or have a high-powered business job to make a lasting difference.

“Maybe [the highest and best use is] for you to read to a child daily,” he said.

Asking yourself which of your talents and gifts inspire you to get up in the morning is time well-spent.

  1. Invest in the future.

“People have put barriers to us for hundreds of years and been thoughtful about it… So we need to be thoughtful.”

New developments in technology have been compared to the “fourth industrial revolution.” But Smith insists there is a lot at stake if black people miss out on the current boom in STEM.

“These are the on-ramps in our community. The greatest wealth building opportunity in the history of the planet,” Smith remarked.

“How do we get a part of that wealth? I guarantee it’s through technology.”

Smith says in the same way that football scouts start early in finding young athletic talent in elementary school, black communities should invest resources in uplifting our own young tech stars.

“It’s intellectual property resources that you have unique dominion over,” says Smith.

“There is a system that has been developed, that we have to develop in technology. Then what happens is, leaders will emerge.”