2018 AACSB Influential Leader

Robert Smith

Robert Smith

Columbia University, Columbia Business School

United States

Diversity and Inclusion


Chairman and CEO, Vista Equity Partners

Both Robert Smith’s career and philanthropy demonstrate his dedication to bringing a greater understanding of the African- American experience to all, not only to deepen societal and cultural awareness but also to inspire future leaders.

An invaluable member of the Columbia Business School community, Robert Smith has made an extraordinary impression on the business world, both as a capable leader and as an exemplary advocate for diversity and inclusion. He is founder, chair, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm with more than 30 billion USD in cumulative capital commitments, and in 2015, Smith was the only African-American male to land on Forbes Magazine’s Forbes 400 list.

In June 2016, he was appointed as the first African-American chair of Carnegie Hall, a significant advancement for New York City’s cultural arts world, which has historically lacked diverse leaders on its boards. He is also chair of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a human rights advocacy organization that promotes the fair and equal treatment of underrepresented persons around the world.

In addition to serving as a role model for diversity and inclusion in his own career, Smith has contributed greatly to philanthropic efforts that have helped further these vital areas. In 2014, he established the Fund II Foundation, which has since made grants worth more than 150 million USD to causes such as music education, entrepreneurship, human rights, and the environment. The foundation also seeks to preserve the cultural richness of the African-American experience, with the hope that this will inspire a new generation of leaders.

In early 2016, Smith made an incredible 50 million USD commitment to his alma mater, Cornell University, to establish the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His endowment supports financial aid for traditionally underrepresented populations in engineering and technology, particularly African-American and female students. The endowment will also be used to establish diversity initiatives in engineering, and to create the Robert Frederick Smith Tech Scholars Program. The program offers high school seniors with demonstrated financial need, with preference given to African-American and female students, the opportunity to earn an undergraduate degree at Cornell Engineering, and a one-year technical master’s degree at Cornell Tech. Smith’s generous pledge exemplifies his inspiring commitment to increasing the accessibility of education, promoting the representation of women and minorities in STEM fields, and encouraging a new generation of diverse leaders.

In September 2016, Smith made an inspiring contribution of 20 million USD to support the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., one of the largest gifts ever made to the museum by an individual. The museum’s Robert F. Smith Explore Your Family History Center—designated in honor of his gift—seeks to document the stories and contributions of notable African-Americans, especially those who are not famous or well known. The center also trains future curators who are interested in preserving and strengthening African-American history.