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When Robert F. Smith rose to address the 400 graduates of Atlanta's Morehouse College on May 19, 2019, the students expected the commencement speaker to be entertaining, inspiring, and encouraging. What they did not expect, however, was that he would change their lives forever by pledging to pay off all their student debt.
The billionaire, who had already gifted $1.5 million to the college, began by telling the attentive audience about his daily commute on bus No. 13 to Carson Elementary — a predominantly white school across town in Denver, Colorado. Though busing was discontinued by the time he got to sixth grade, it made a huge impact on his life. “Those five years drastically changed the trajectory of my life,” he said. “The teachers at Carson were extraordinary. They embraced me and challenged me to think critically and start to move toward my full potential. I, in turn, came to realize at a young age that the white kids and the black kids, the Jewish kids and the one Asian kid were all pretty much the same.”
Smith then went on to talk about how the close-knit community he grew up in allowed him to aspire to reach great heights. He also advised the young graduates to work hard at their respective careers and take calculated risks, similar to what he had done by giving up a "secure" job to pursue graduate school, and later on by leaving a lucrative investment banking career to start his own business.
A few minutes prior to the end of his 35-minute-long speech, the entrepreneur asked the graduates to rise and hug the student on either side of them. Smith waited patiently until everyone was done and then declared, “On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. This is the challenge to you, alumni. This is my class — 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans." Once the cheers and applause from the surprised and delighted students subsided, he went on: “Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward. And I want my class to look at these [alumni], these beautiful Morehouse brothers, and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward — because we are enough to take care of our own community.”
The details on how Smith will execute his promise of erasing the graduating class' student loans, estimated to be between $10 million to $40 million, still have to be worked out. However, the altruistic gesture, which left many students in tears, is already inspiring the young graduates to follow through on Smith's request to "pay it forward" and change another person's life. This is not the first time the philanthropist has made a generous donation to a school. In 2016, he gave $50 million to Cornell University’s School Of Engineering, where he completed his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering.
The American businessman, who is estimated to have a net worth of $5 billion, is no stranger to the life-changing impact of a commencement speaker. In 1994, upon graduating from Columbia Business School, Smith planned to pursue a career in marketing. However, soon after the graduation ceremony, commencement speaker John Utendahl, founder of Utendahl Group, one of the largest African American-owned investment banking groups in the US, convinced him to pursue finance instead, and even helped get him a job at Goldman Sachs. Under Utendahl's mentorship, Smith rapidly rose through the ranks and, within six years, became the co-head of a San Francisco-based Goldman group that advised enterprise systems and storage companies. In 2000, a client loaned Smith $200,000 to start Vista Equity Partners, which today manages $46 billion in assets and ranks among the most successful investment firms in the world.
The billionaire has undoubtedly changed the lives of the 2019 Morehouse graduating class. Unfortunately, thanks to the rising cost of education, hundreds of thousands of young graduates across the US continue to struggle to pay off their student loans. Hopefully, the world's wealthy will follow Smith's lead to help out those most burdened by this debt.
Resources: foxbuisness.com, Youtube.com, Forbes.com