By DAVID GELLES
Robert F. Smith was giving the commencement address to the graduating class of Morehouse College when he made a surprise announcement: He would be paying off the student loans of the roughly 400 graduates.
It was just the latest substantial gesture from Mr. Smith, the richest black man in America, who until just a few years ago was practically unknown.
Here’s what you need to know about him:
■ Mr. Smith has amassed a fortune that Forbes estimates to be worth $5 billion by founding Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm that focuses on buying and selling software firms.
■ Vista has about $46 billion in assets under management, according to Forbes. The company is privately held and does not publicly report its results, but it is believed to be one of the best-performing firms in the country, with annualized returns of more than 20 percent since its founding.
■ Vista has unconventional hiring practices. Rather than seek out people with Ivy League degrees or recruit top talent from Silicon Valley, Mr. Smith looks for skilled engineers and managers from other professions who may thrive inside his companies. As part of its hiring efforts, Vista uses a personality test first developed by IBM that gauges technical and social skills, as well as a candidate’s interest in the arts and humanities.
■ Mr. Smith grew up in a mostly black, middle-class neighborhood in Denver. Both of his parents had Ph.D.s in education, and he was ambitious from an early age. He applied for an internship at Bell Labs in high school, but was told he was too young. Mr. Smith called every Monday for five months and finally got the position
■ He went to college at Cornell, studying chemical engineering, then took a job at Kraft General Foods. He got a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia, then worked at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, advising companies including Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft.
■ Mr. Smith has a passion for music. In 2016, he was named chairman of the board of Carnegie Hall, the nation’s most prestigious concert stage. He bought and restored a storied resort, Lincoln Hills, outside Denver, where black jazz musicians like Duke Ellington once played. And he has founded programs to support music education and minority entrepreneurship in Austin, Tex., where he lives, and Chicago, where Vista has an office.
■ Mr. Smith has a flamboyant side as well. He favors three-piece suits, owns one of Elton John’s old pianos and hired John Legend and Seal — and a youth orchestra — to perform at his wedding on the Amalfi Coast. He named two of his sons, Hendrix and Legend, after Jimi Hendrix and Mr. Legend. He is married to Hope Dworaczyk, an actress and former Playboy model.
■ Though he shunned the spotlight for many years, he has recently embraced a more public role, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and making major charitable contributions. Cornell renamed its School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering after Mr. Smith, and he has made major gifts to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and other cultural institutions. In January, Mr. Smith donated $1.5 million to Morehouse to fund student scholarships and a new park on campus.