Sparklers is a monthly series that highlights those who have recently spread light in the world. Every day, people choose to shine in ways large and small. These moments of grace and generosity don’t always get reported on, and unfortunately they can be quickly forgotten. So we’re celebrating good deeds and kind acts. Because sometimes good news and kindness are the sweetest luxuries of all. The Sparkler of the Month for May 2019 philanthropy is Robert F Smith.
celebrating sparklers: those who choose to shine
Each month, we shine a light on an organization or an individual who is spreading light in the world. Our Sparkler for the month of May? Robert F. Smith.
the may sparkler of the month: robert f smith
It’s that time of year again – college graduation season. And chances are that you’ve probably heard about, or even experienced firsthand, the seemingly endless list of celebrities and CEOs that have spoken at this year’s commencement ceremonies. From Angela Merkel at Harvard to Viola Davis at Columbia to John Krasinski at Brown, there were a lot of famous faces addressing the class of 2019.
Even at my own small liberal arts college in Connecticut you could find Sam Kennedy, the President and CEO of the Boston Red Sox, speaking – though that’s probably because he is a highly-admired alumnus.
It’s possible however, in all of this pomp and circumstance, that you missed one of the most inspiring of these addresses to have taken place.
a stunning act of generosity from robert f smith
At Morehouse College in Atlanta this year, the entrepreneur and founder of the investment firm Vista Equity Partners, Robert F. Smith, was invited to serve as commencement speaker.
Instead of giving the cliché “do what makes you happy and you will never work a day in your life” speech, or reminding graduates that “the world is their oyster,” Smith did something rather remarkable. He opted to give the 396 students more than advice. He gave them financial freedom.
Following a moving speech about his experience desegregating a white elementary school and the bus that brought him to school every day, Smith surprised the graduating class. He announced that he would pay off 100% of the student loan debt each graduate accumulated while at Morehouse. His only request in return? That students find a way to pay it forward to others in the future.
Smith credits his vast professional success not just to his own hard work and dedication, but to the community around him. He refers to himself as a “community-made man.” He acknowledges that the path he took to prosperity was paved by his parents, grandparents and generations of African-Americans before him. He told the students that it is “their struggles, their courage and their progress that allowed me to strive and achieve.” So it is an incredibly moving gesture that he seeks to provide the same clear pathway for these newly-minted graduates.
By “putting a little fuel in their buses,” and helping them leave school debt-free, Smith will help to flip the script on the typical domino effect that new graduates encounter after college when they find themselves overwhelmed by debt.
Instead of worrying about missing payments, lowered credit scores or even delaying the start of a family, new Morehouse graduates will be able to focus on shaping their futures and fulfilling their dreams.
decades of philanthropy by robert f smith
This generous gift isn’t the first time Robert F. Smith has helped to forge a future for others in need. Smith has donated to many organizations, including the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. He is the second-largest donor to the institution, after Oprah Winfrey.
Smith has also made significant contributions to Columbia University. He has been an active patron of music and the arts, and is the Chairman of the board of Carnegie Hall.
In 2017 Smith signed the Giving Pledge, an effort spearheaded by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. By signing, wealthy Americans make a commitment to giving away half of their fortunes to those in need. In signing the pledge, Smith promised to focus on causes that support equality for black Americans and the environment.
Smith has clearly taken his pledge seriously. And thanks to his student loan-eliminating gift, his efforts will likely be felt for multiple generations to come.
In recent news, just a couple of weeks after his Morehouse donation, Smith announced a new initiative called InternX. One thousand undergraduates of color in their sophomore year of college will receive financial assistance if they have achieved a 2.8 GPA and are interested in STEM. The program will provide 8-week paid internships in a STEM-related role at either one of Smith’s own companies, or a partner company.
Robert F. Smith is a wonderful example of humility, empathy, generosity and leadership. We are truly inspired by his generosity, and hope that others see the importance of paying it forward too.
We’ll highlight one new Sparkler every month. If you’d like to nominate a person or organization, send us your suggestions!
In the meantime, we’ll take inspiration from those who choose to shine as we head into a new month. Let’s work to make it brilliant.
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Jillian Tangen is the Head of Research at Dandelion Chandelier. Formerly, she was a Senior Research Analyst at McKinsey & Co and Analyst at Shearman & Sterling. She is an avid fan of Nordic design, having owned an independent lifestyle store and sales agency focused on emerging Scandinavian design. Jillian lives in NYC and is married with three young children. She loves cross country skiing, the New York Rangers, reading, travel and discovering new brands.
Join our community
For access to insider ideas and information on the world of luxury, sign up for our Dandelion Chandelier newsletter. And see luxury in a new light.