Smith ’85 to receive engineering college alumni honor

Robert F. Smith ’85, founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, will be honored with Cornell Engineering’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Robert F. Smith

The award – which annually recognizes an alum who has broken traditional boundaries to transform society, and whose professional accomplishments bring distinction to the college – will be presented Friday, April 24, at 4 p.m. in Statler Hall Auditorium.

The event, which will begin with remarks by President Martha E. Pollack, is open to the Cornell community and will include a conversation between Smith and Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering.

Smith, named one of the “greatest living business minds” by Forbes magazine, founded Vista in 2002 as a private equity firm that invests in software-, data- and technology-driven companies. Under Smith’s leadership, it became the fastest-growing private equity company in America, with a portfolio of more than 60 companies, 75,000 employees and more than $52 billion in cumulative capital commitments.

Smith received his bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Cornell, and his MBA from Columbia Business School. He began his career at Kraft Foods, where he earned two U.S. and two European patents as a chemical engineer. In 1994, he joined Goldman Sachs, where he focused on technology investments, advising on more than $50 billion in acquisitions for some of the world’s largest tech companies.

Smith received a 2019 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy for helping enable equal access to health care and education, among other philanthropic efforts. He is chair of Carnegie Hall and chair of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of the Columbia Business School Board of Overseers, the Cornell Tech Board of Overseers, the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco Board of Trustees, and an emeritus member of the Cornell Engineering College Council.

The first African American signatory of the Giving Pledge, Smith is the founding director of Fund II Foundation, which focuses on: preserving the African American experience; safeguarding human rights; providing music education; preserving the environment while promoting the benefits of the outdoors; and sustaining American values.

Smith made the largest private donation to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and in 2019 surprised Morehouse College students by announcing a grant to eliminate student loan debt for the entire graduating class.

In 2016, Smith and Fund II Foundation gave $50 million to Cornell Engineering to advance teaching and research in chemical and biomolecular engineering and provide scholarships, graduate fellowships and program funding to help recruit and support underrepresented students. In recognition of his philanthropy, the university named the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in his honor.

Syl Kacapyr is public relations and content manager for the College of Engineering.

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Rebecca Valli