Robert F. Smith and Hope Smith at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights 2016 Ripple of Hope Awards in New York City.
Robert F. Smith is the son of teachers. A brilliant engineer and businessman himself, that footing shines through in many of the decisions he’s made in his life. At 56 and after a career in private equity, Smith’s net worth is estimated at around $6 billion. In 2018, he passed up Oprah Winfrey to become the wealthiest African-American, and he was No. 480 on Forbes’s list of the wealthiest people in the world.
Smith regards himself as having been set up for success, by his family and the educational opportunities that were available to him as a young man. Already a remarkable philanthropist and the first African-American to sign Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge, he wanted to make a point of ensuring that other men like him shared those opportunities.
Back in May of this year, Smith spoke at the commencement for Morehouse College. In his speech, he promised to pay off the federal student loans of every student walking the stage that day, which totaled 400 students—nearly all of them black men. On September 20, in a press release, he expanded that promise to include all of their parents and guardians.
“This is my class, Class of 2019. My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans,” said Smith on that stage. “You great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity.”
David A. Thomas, the President of Morehouse College, called it a “liberation gift.” The gift will cost Smith’s foundation just over $34 million.
Elijah Dormeus, one of those graduates, wrote about sitting in that ceremony, hearing that he would not be shackled to the $94,000 his bachelor’s degree had cost. He’d been told in high school that he’d never go to college, not as the son of a single, underemployed mother. But he’d worked his way towards success, just like Smith, and as he sat there in his cap and gown, only those loans still stood in his way. And with just a few sentences, they were gone.