Who is Robert Smith? The American billionaire sponsoring the released Chibok girls through school

Robert Smith is unlike your Nigerian billionaire. A Washington Post article describes him as “the quiet billionaire”.

You’d wonder why the Nigerian media is suddenly concerned about the African-American who has a track record of philanthropy. On Tuesday, senior special assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu announced at a media briefing in Abuja that “a black American billionaire, Mr. Robert Smith who is currently sponsoring the education of 24 girls from Chibok, among them the first set of escapees from Boko Haram at the American University of Nigeria, Yola has offered to pay for the education of the 21 released through negotiations and is offering to take responsibility for all the others who will hopefully be eventually set free“.

This level of generosity is endearing especially considering our collective concern about the state of the freed Chibok girls and the others that we pray for their release. It’s only natural that we seek further knowledge about the man who is paying to educate the girls and offering to pay for the yet-to-be-released ones.

So what’s to know about the man, Robert Frederick Smith?

He is 54 years old, is ranked the 248th richest person in the United States and has displaced Michael Jordan to be the 2nd richest African American after Oprah Winfrey. On The Forbes 400 list, Robert Smith holds the 274th place and is worth $2.5billion as at 28 December, 2016.

Born to two high school principals with PhDs, Robert Smith grew up in the predominantly black neighbourhood Denver, the capital of Colorado. As he has told in interviews, his philanthropic lifestyle dates back to his nascent years. His parents gave a $25 paycheck to the United College Negro Fund every month and they made their kids (Robert and his older brother) aware of giving and its importance.

As he advanced to high school, Robert developed an interest in computers and he found his way into an internship at Bell Labs (now known as AT&T). In an interview with Washington Post, Smith describes some of the best moments in his life as “excitement of figuring a complex problem out” as it relates to technology.

But he did not study computers in university as one would expect, Robert went on to Cornell University to study Chemical Engineering, although he spent his summer and winter breaks continuing his internship at Bell Labs. He then proceeded to Colombia University where he bagged his MBA.

Robert Smith seems to be the type who is not afraid to try his hands on new things. From the love for computers and technology to study chemical engineering, he launched his career by taking a job in investment banking. He joined multinational finance company, Goldman Sachs and here, he rose and fast too. Up until 2000 when he quit, Robert was advising on multi-million dollar merger deals and acquisitions. His supervisor at the company in the 1990s said of him “He always sought an opportunity to build something that was valuable. He wants to make the entire community better.”

In the year 2000, Smith started his own private equity firm amidst concerns from colleagues and mentors at Goldman Sachs. In a speech he gave in early 2015, Smith said the people around him at the time thought he had lost it. The private equity firm he started 16 years ago, Vista Equity Partners has gone on to be among the top 50 most consistent performing buyout fund managers in the world this 2016. With offices in Texas, Oakland, Chicago and San Francisco, Vista Equity Partners focuses on investing in software and technology-enabled businesses to help them achieve their full potential.

His philanthropic history 

In 2013, Robert Smith’s most widely-reported event of giving happened. He gave a $20million gift to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, making him the second biggest private donor to the museum, again after Oprah Winfrey who had previously donated a sum of $21million.

Robert Smith is the founding president of Fund II Foundation, through which he supports nonprofit groups that focus on African American culture, human rights, music education and the environment.

In January 2016, Smith personally donated $20million to his alma mater, Cornell University. He also monitored and ensured that his Fund II Foundation made a $30million investment into the university, all to increase the number of black and female students at the engineering school in Cornell.

For Smith’s impactful contributions, schools and history centres have been renamed after him.

In 2015, Robert Smith married former Playboy model, Hope Dworaczyk in a private, lavish ceremony in Italy. They have a son together. 

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