In 2013, when the founders of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture were seeking donors, people directed them to one man: Robert F. Smith.
“We kept wondering, ‘Who is this Robert Smith?’ ” said Adrienne Brooks, director of development for the museum. Meeting Smith became a priority, said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s founding director. “We wanted to meet him. And soon,” Bunch said, laughing.
Soon many more people will know Robert Smith by name as the museum celebrates its grand opening this weekend. The private-equity financier was the museum’s second-biggest private donor, with a $20 million gift. Oprah Winfrey was No. 1, with $21 million.
Smith has built a fortune that’s made him one of the nation’s richest men — worth $2.5 billion, according to Forbes — but until now he has kept his work and philanthropy relatively quiet.
Even the website of his company, Vista Equity Partners, does not have a picture of him. Better, he had thought, that investors and executives know him first by his abilities. If they saw only the caramel skin of an African American, he might lose out on opportunities.
As Vista’s chairman and chief executive, he is in the business of buying, growing and selling off software companies. Vista’s portfolio has 35 companies with $26 billion in assets under management. He is the majority shareholder of Vista’s management company.
Beyond Wall Street and Silicon Valley, Smith long enjoyed moving in relative obscurity. That changed last fall when Forbes magazine put him on its cover, with an article for which he declined to be interviewed.
Now in an exclusive interview with The Washington Post, he’s ready to talk about his life’s work and the powerful social force that has pulled him out of the shadows: the racial tension escalating across the nation. Smith said he grew fearful that the very fabric of the country that allowed his parents to earn doctorate degrees and him to build a successful business is vulnerable.
Watching TV news, he saw the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after the 2014 fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth, Michael Brown, by police. Last year he watched the turmoil following Freddie Gray’s funeral in Baltimore. Across the land, he feared, a sense of opportunity is giving way to rising hopelessness and despair.
“The vision I was sold as a kid is unraveling. I see the little tears in the fabric of society every day. This cannot be,” Smith said in the interview.
His philanthropic efforts go back years. Through the Fund II Foundation, of which he is the founding president, he has supported nonprofit groups that focus on African American culture, human rights, music education and the environment.
It was time to emerge, he thought, and do more. “We have to do something,” he said. “We have to do something for our community.”
To read full article, go to: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/who-is-this-robert-smith-a-quiet-billionaire-makes-some-noise-with-20-million-gift-to-the-african-american-museum/2016/09/23/547da3a8-6fd0-11e6-8365-b19e428a975e_story.html