Robert F. Smith, billionaire who pledged to pay Morehouse grads’ loans, had life-changing graduation speaker himself

Morehouse College commencement speaker Robert F. Smith made a lasting impression on the class of 2019 on Sunday when he pledged to pay off their student loans — a move which somewhat mirrored the influence his 1994 Columbia Business School graduation speaker had on him and his booming career.

Smith, who already announced a $1.5 million gift to the school, told nearly 400 Morehouse grads that he’s wiping out their student debt, a financial burden that’s plagued many people leaving college. The additional pledge to pay off the graduating class’ student loan debt is estimated to be $40 million

"On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we're gonna put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans," Smith said to a cheering crowd.

Billionaire investor and philanthropist Robert Smith pledged to eliminate student debt for the entire 2019 class at Morehouse College. (Morehouse College)

The investor seemed to know how a graduation speaker can influence someone's future.

Smith graduated from Columbia Business School in 1994 and was planning to pursue a marketing career until he sat down with John Utendahl, the current Bank of America vice chairman who was Smith’s commencement speaker at the time, Forbes reported. Utendahl met with Smith after the graduation ceremony and, during a lunch meeting, managed to convince the then-new graduate to go into a career in investment banking.

"There is a spark, a poise, even a wisdom that you can't teach or learn. Some people are just blessed to have it," Utendahl previously told Forbes. "That's how I felt when I met Robert as a young man."

Utendahl went on to become Smith’s mentor and helped land him his first job at Goldman Sachs. The job, along with Utendahl’s mentorship, helped Smith pave his way to start his own successful company, Vista Equity Partners, in 2000.


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Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that invests in software, data, and technology-driven companies, has bought more than 200 software companies since 2010, Forbes reported.

Smith, who has an estimated net worth of $5 billion, received an honorary doctorate from the college during the graduation ceremony. The investor and philanthropist urged others to “pay it forward” to help the future generation succeed.

The 56-year-old billionaire is the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge, a campaign founded by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage wealthy individuals to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy, Forbes reported. He is also the president of the Fund II Foundation.


Sunday wasn’t the first time Smith made a generous donation to a school. In 2016, he pledged $50 million of his personal money through a foundation to his alma mater, Cornell University’s School Of Engineering.