- Filip Wolak/The Carnegie Corporation
- In May, billionaire Robert F. Smith pledged to pay off student loan debt for an entire graduating class. Smith made the announcement that he would pay off the student loans of the 400 graduating seniors during his commencement address at Morehouse College.
- In September, he followed up on the announcement by pledging to also pay off those students’ parents’ educational debt.
- At the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy award ceremony in NYC on October 16, Smith said the gift was inspired in part by his mother’s monthly $25 gift to the United Negro College Fund.
- Smith built his $6.08 billion fortune from his Texas-based private-equity firm Vista Equity Partners.
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Robert F. Smith’s $34 million gift to pay off student loans for an entire college class was inspired by a much smaller act of philanthropy he witnessed as a child.
On October 16, the billionaire accepted the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy for his donation. In his acceptance speech, Smith explained the role his parents played in inspiring the decision.
“I saw my parents exhibit a form of philanthropy every day,” Smith said at the ceremony, which was held at the New York Public Library’s Schwarzman Building. “My mother wrote a check every month for $25 to the United Negro College Fund for over 50 years.”
The United Negro College Fund is a nonprofit organization that provides educational programs and scholarships to African American students. Education was a priority in Smith’s Denver, Colorado childhood home, Smith said. Smith’s parents were teachers, who both went on to earn their PhDs and become principals, according to a biography of Smith provided by the Carnegie Corporation. Smith called his father a philanthropist as well, for his volunteer work at the local YMCA.
Smith has been making headlines in 2019 for education-focused donations
In May, Smith made headlines when he announced the gift while speaking at the Morehouse College class of 2019’s commencement.
“My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans,” Smith told the graduates at the ceremony, Business Insider previously reported. “You great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity.”
In September, Smith went on to expand the gift to include any outstanding educational loans owed by the graduates’ parents.
“I’m the first generation in my family to have all my rights in America,” Smith said at the October ceremony, “and when I think about that, I take that responsibility seriously, to bring all of the education and dedication and effort to create in this world, in this economic structure, opportunity that I can then drive into philanthropic fabric to do what I think is the most important thing on this planet, which is to liberate the human spirit.”
Smith’s gift to Morehouse was far from his first work of philanthropy. He made the largest private donation to the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture and his Fund II Foundation sponsored The New York Times’ 1619 Project investigating the beginnings of American slavery, according to the Carnegie Corporation.
Smith is the chairman and CEO of Texas-based private-equity firm Vista Equity Partners. He has a net worth of $6.08 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
The Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy is awarded every two years
The Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy is awarded to influential philanthropists every two years by the nonprofit organizations founded by Andrew Carnegie, the organization said in a press release.
Those organizations include Carnegie Mellon University and Carnegie Hall. Eight other billionaires – Anne Earhart, Mellody Hobson, Henry R. Kravis, Marie-Josée Kravis, George Lucas, Morton L. Mandel, Leonard Tow, and Ian Wood – were also given medals by the Carnegie Corporation for their philanthropic work at the ceremony.
Smith wasn’t the only medalist to cite the charitable contributions of ordinary Americans as one of his inspirations.
“We hear a great deal about hate and intolerance these days,” billionaire philanthropist Marie-Josée Kravis said, “but every day millions and millions of Americans all through the nation are living and upholding the definition of philanthropy, the love of humanity, and I thank them profoundly.”