Black Philanthropist Robert F. Smith Expands Student Internship Program in STEM

Robert F. Smith is making headlines again for his philanthropic generosity. Less than two weeks ago, the billionaire investor and philanthropist, as an invited commencement speaker at Morehouse College, promised to pay the student loans for the entire graduating class. His announcement came at a moment when there is growing concern about the debt facing American students who pursue higher education.

Issues of debt are closely linked to employment, and this is where Smith is making his latest inroads. Now, he is expanding a preexisting student internship program called InternX. The program will assist more students with an emphasis in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, as well as those interested in the financial, marketing, software, non-profits, and real estate sectors.

InternX internships are available to students of color with an average 2.8 GPA. These paid internships provide eight weeks of intensive training in the summer months. The selected company would provide a welcoming environment, mentorship, networking, and robust assignments. Training opportunities are available before, during, and after the internship. Companies will pay relocation costs on a case by case basis as well as other expenses. Companies also have the option to retain internees part-time during the academic year.

Some of the nation’s leading Fortune 500 companies have agreed to accept interns, including AT&T, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Citibank, and Vista Equity Partners — Smith’s private equity and wealth management company, according to Vibe.

Smith’s goal is to expand the internship program to reach a larger number of underserved students.

Last year, 70 students were placed in summer internships in STEM fields, according to Vibe. With this expansion, the program is now slated to help more than 1000 students secure job training opportunities, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Funding for this initiative is an outgrowth of Smith’s Fund II Foundation, founded in 2014. The foundation developed a program called “Cradle to Greatness” that is designed to develop talent and have an impact for generations to come by focusing on youth who have been underserved and overlooked.

A major part of the program is the STEM initiative, which promotes internship opportunities. The foundation also makes grants to 501(c)(3) public charities in five areas: preservation of African American history and culture; safeguarding human dignity and promoting human rights; supporting environmental conservation efforts; promoting the arts, including music programs in primary and secondary schools; and promoting the American values of entrepreneurship, empowerment, innovation, and security. Since its establishment, the Fund II Foundation has made more than $150 million in grants to a wide range of charities, including the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the United Negro College Fund, NPower, The Opportunity Network, and the National Park Foundation, according to the Fund II Foundation page. Smith is a venture capitalist and equity firm owner. Born in Denver, Colorado, he is the son of two parents with PhDs who were school principals. Graduating from Cornell University with a Chemical Engineering degree and as a member of the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, he also holds an MBA from Columbia Business School at Columbia University.

As a college student, Smith secured an internship at Bell Labs by calling the company every day until he secured the opportunity. He has been employed by Kraft General Foods, Air Products and Chemicals, and The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. While at Kraft, Smith obtained two coffee-related patents: a stainless-steel filter and an espresso brewing process that facilitates the production of crema, the foam on top of espressos.

After completing his MBA, Smith worked for the mergers and acquisitions department at Goldman Sachs. He eventually moved to San Francisco where he advised companies like Apple, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, Yahoo, and eBay. In this capacity, he became acquainted with a little-known Houston company called Universal Computer Systems, which focused on software for auto dealers. Smith suggested that, rather than putting cash into certificates of deposit, why not acquire other mature software companies. The company suggested Smith lead the effort and offered him $1 billion from the company’s coffers, acting as the sole investor if he started a private equity firm. Smith left Goldman Sachs in 2000, found partners and the rest is history. He founded private equity firm Vista Equity Partners later that year. The firm focuses on investing in software companies and is estimated to have over $46 billion in assets. It is one of the best-performing equity firms, posting annualized returns of 22 percent since its founding, according to Forbes.

A multi-talented genius, dealmaker, and creator of equity and wealth, Robert F. Smith is using his massive intellectual and financial capital to impact the most serious challenges of the 21st century: reducing student debt and college affordability, and diversifying the workforce through the inclusion and infusion of more minorities and people of color.


About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.