Influential billionaires, investors, and philanthropists are speaking more openly about the history of wealth in the U.S., tackling such issues as “systemic economic underdevelopment,” and how business leaders can challenge themselves through public and private partnerships to create opportunities that lead to economic prosperity for more of the country’s citizens.
At Milken Institute’s Global Conference last May in Beverly Hills, Calif., billionaire philanthropist Robert F. Smith, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners appeared on the “Keeping the American Dream Alive” panel. He shared his thoughts on the consensus that access to a good education is essential to participate both equally and substantively in today’s economy. Smith, whose philanthropic gifts include $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and whom Forbes in 2018 named the wealthiest African American in the U.S., spoke of growing up in a Denver, Colo., neighborhood inhabited by Black dentists, music teachers, pharmacists, and other professionals. They valued education and educators, and were committed to assuring their community as a safe, nurturing environment, he recounted. He attended “a great public school” in that neighborhood, he further recalled, which led to a high school internship at Bell Labs and ultimately a career in chemical engineering.
But the dynamics of that neighborhood and others like it no longer exist as before, Smith observed. “The economic opportunity that was afforded me has shrunk,” he stated. “We had a period of time when a window opened, and I was one of the kids who made it through that window. But those schools are now at the bottom two-fifths and three-fifths, and are as segregated as they were in the ‘50s.”
The Homestead Act of 1862 contributed to wealth creation in America by providing for the government to give 270 million acres of land to one and a half million families, he said, but African-Americans were largely excluded from this benefit. Such systemic slights honed Smith’s belief in “driving shared prosperity,” and “re-architecting the American fabric that creates the American Dream.”
Working at Bell Labs years after his internship, Smith learned about enterprise software and concluded that technology was the future. “If we orient it properly, we can create massive amounts of wealth for whole communities,” he said. “Today, for the first time in human history, success requires no prerequisite of wealth or capital, no ownership of land, natural resources or people. It can be created solely through the power of one’s mind, ideas, and courage.”
To that end, Vista Equity Partners invests in companies like software developers Social Solutions, which leverages technology and data to improve education systems. The software provides a holistic, actionable approach to engage parents and teachers alike. Built to analyze how students are matriculating through school, Social Solutions software tracks absenteeism, for example.
Vista has also invested in InternX, a platform for students from ethnically underrepresented groups who are seeking STEM-related internships, and companies that offer such internships. “Internships create awareness of careers that some students wouldn’t even know exist,” Smith said. “These are the ways my company is investing time, money, energy, and organizational capacity into individual companies. And when we don’t have a company to do it, we fund one.”
Speaking at Morehouse College’s commencement ceremony in May, Smith announced he would eliminate the student loan debt of this year’s graduating class. “This is my class. 2019. And I know my class will make sure they pay this forward because we are enough to take care of our own community,” he declared.