Meet Robert F. Smith—Our 2018 Leadership Breakfast Keynote Speaker

Today he’s a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who makes the cover of Forbes and is the subject of lengthy profiles in the New York Times and the Washington Post. But Robert F. Smith knows, as do our successful program participants, how important persistence and making a good impression are to one’s career.

Growing up in Denver, CO, the son of public school teachers, Smith became interested in computer science after taking a course as a high school junior. He contacted Bell Labs, which had a research facility nearby, and asked if they offered internships. The company did, Smith was told, but only for college seniors. Undeterred, Smith called Bell Labs every day for two weeks to ask for an internship interview. When the human resources director stopped taking his calls on day two, he simply left messages with a receptionist. After two weeks of unreturned calls, Smith changed tactics and began calling every Monday, dutifully leaving his name and number. Five months later, Bell finally called him back when an MIT student failed to show up for their internship. They needed Smith to start right away. He wound up sharing an office with a chemical engineer who would become his mentor.

“The persistence to get that job led to me working at Bell Labs for the next four years, becoming a coop student, and ultimately finishing with a degree in chemical engineering from Cornell,” Smith said in a 2015 commencement address at American University. “All from being persistent.”

We’re thrilled that Smith will be the keynote speaker at our 2018 Leadership Breakfast on Oct. 12. The annual event highlights the impact of our program, and celebrates the hard work and contributions of our participants, volunteers, and supporters.

Smith is the founder, chairman and chief executive of Vista Equity Partners, an investment firm with over $30 billion in capital commitments that specializes in buying, growing, and selling off software companies. Under Smith’s leadership Vista has become known for its unique hiring practices: rather than recruiting tech savants from the ranks of the Ivy League, Vista looks for workers who demonstrate leadership potential and innate analytical skills using a personality test that gauges technical and social skills along with interest in the arts and humanities. The result, as the New York Times noted, is that Vista jobs often go to unlikely candidates who turn out to be very successful:

“One of Vista’s best software salesmen used to be a roofer. Another previously worked at a Verizon store, and went to making $240,000 a year, from $22,000. In Iowa, a pizza deliveryman took the Vista aptitude test, got an A, and was offered a job paying $43,000 annually.”

“I look for a complete package. When someone is a complete package, they are more engaged, more excited, more passionate about what they are doing,” Smith explained to the the Washington Post of his hiring practices.

Smith is also a social-justice minded philanthropist with a particular interest in creating opportunities for women and African Americans. He attracted a great deal of attention for his $20 million gift to the Museum of African American History and for becoming the first African American to sign the Giving Pledge, in which he committed to contributing half his net worth to philanthropic causes during his lifetime. Through his Fund II Foundation, Smith donated $27 million to the Susan G. Komen organization, which funds research into the cure and prevention of breast cancer, and contributed $50 million to an effort to increase the enrollment of women and minorities at Cornell’s College of Engineering.

In addition to his business and philanthropic ventures, Smith serves as chairman of Carnegie Hall—the first African American to hold the post—and chairman of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. 

We’re excited to learn more about Smith’s inspiring story and learn more about what it takes to build a successful career—no matter our educational background or experience. We hope you are, too! Tickets and sponsorships are available online. Or you can be in touch with our Executive Director Susan Yule if you have any questions. See you in October!