As we celebrate Black History Month, Cheddar is highlighting prominent Black Americans who are carving their own historic paths and trailblazing in their industries. While Black History Month has become synonymous with reflecting on past achievements of Black Americans, it is important that we acknowledge today's historic feats as they happen.
Robert F. Smith gives the commencement address during the Morehouse College 135th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 19, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
For billionaire Robert F. Smith, providing financial support to philanthropic causes has seemingly become second nature, but the Cornell University and Columbia University graduate has taken a particular liking to advance the studies of minority college students. Last year, with a $50 million endowment, Smith launched the Student Freedom Initiative (SFI), a non-profit organization that aims to "liberate" students from low-income families from crippling debt accrued at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
"Each year, thousands of Black graduates from HBCUs across America enter the workforce with a crushing debt burden that stunts future decisions and prevents opportunities and choices," he said in a statement. "A college education should empower and prepare our next generation for a limitless future."
The idea to kick off SFI, he said, came after a promise to clear the debt of the entire Morehouse College graduating class of 2019, a bill that totaled more than $34 million. The following year, TIME magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people, and since then, Smith has made a concerted effort to help minority graduates live student debt-free lives, specifically so they can focus on getting their careers off the ground.
Robert F. Smith, founder, chairman, and CEO Vista Equity Partners speaks onstage at Morehouse College 30th Annual A Candle In The Dark Gala at The Hyatt Regency Atlanta on February 17, 2018, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)
He's also providing support for students that run into unexpected life circumstances while in school. Last week, Smith, SFI, and Prudential Financial launched the Handling Everyday Life Problem for Students Program, which allows students in emergency situations to apply for aid from $1.8 million worth of microgrants and paid internships.
"By enabling the launch of the HELPS Program, a vital component of our work to address the holistic needs of HBCU students and families, Prudential's gift will provide a long-needed and often overlooked aid and support persistence of those most vulnerable in our community," Smith said in a press release.
Smith, one of the wealthiest Americans, and a Denver native, recently emerged as a potential buyer of the NFL's Denver Broncos. It would be a landmark deal if the sale goes through, making him the league's first Black American owner. Though it's unclear if he's truly interested in putting a bid in for the franchise, he would still be in contention with other bidders, including media mogul billionaire Byron Allen. Still, the advancement of Black and other underserved Americans continues to be a top priority for the Vista Equity Partners CEO.
“The greatest joy you will ever feel in your life, from my experience, is the joy of liberating the human spirit,” Smith said.