Philanthropist and entrepreneur Robert F. Smith believes that internships are not only crucial to the success of any business, but are also key for creating pathways to success and onramps to opportunity for young people from all backgrounds.
Smith is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners (Vista), a leading global investment firm that invests in enterprise software, data and technology-enabled businesses. Vista is partnering with KIPP Public Schools to provide internships to college students from underrepresented backgrounds in the field of asset management — the kind of opportunity Smith himself received at a key moment in his life.
As a high school student, Smith, who hoped to be an engineer, set his sights on an internship from Bell Labs, an industrial research and scientific development company created with the development of radio astronomy, the transistor and the laser.
Smith was denied initially because the intern positions were reserved for college students. However, he was persistent and called the company every week for five months to eventually secure an opportunity.
Smith interned at Bell Labs throughout his college years at Cornell University, using the money he earned to help cover his tuition. He credits the internship with helping him grow in ways beyond what he was learning in the classroom. It also opened up his worldview as he met professional scientists, including his mentor who had a Ph.D. in solid state physics and inspired Smith to keep asking questions and to stay curious.
“[My interactions with my mentor] taught me one of my most important life lessons – ‘discover the joy of figuring things out,’” said Smith. “There is great joy in solving problems, in aiming for constant and ongoing improvement – it’s core to an engineer’s mindset.”
Smith’s experience at Bell Labs showed him that internships could alter the trajectory of someone’s life. Along with offering internships at Vista to students not traditionally represented in the asset management field, Smith also established InternXL, an organization that helps connect employers with talented intern candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. The InternXL program is operated by Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is the Founding Director and President.
Smith’s Philanthropic Work
Creating onramps to opportunity for young people is core to Smith’s philanthropy, and he has worked with many organizations that address inequities in education and the workplace.
Smith believes that by developing systematic solutions that scale, we can create sustainable results and mechanisms for not only real progress, but also lasting change. After Smith’s gift to the Morehouse Class of 2019, in which he paid off each graduating students’ college debt, Smith envisioned an organization that could help more students with the cost of attending college. Smith’s idea became the Student Freedom Initiative, which takes a holistic approach to removing some of the financial burdens on STEM students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Smith has also donated to both of his alma maters, Cornell University and Columbia University, with parts of the gifts allocated to create scholarships funds for traditionally underrepresented students.
To tackle workplace inequities for women and people of color, Smith has partnered with multiple organizations, including:
- The Business Roundtable
- The Thirty Percent Coalition
- Girls Who Invest
- The Robert F. Smith Internship Program at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Smith also became the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge in 2017, in which he committed to donating half of his net worth during his lifetime to causes that support equality for African Americans as well as those that work towards ensuring a livable planet for future generations.
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