By Karen Guzman
Growing up in his “beloved community,” a tight-knit African American neighborhood in Denver in the 1960s, Vista Equity Partners founder, chairman, and CEO Robert F. Smith was encouraged to pursue excellence and inspired to provide opportunities for others.
Neighbors helping neighbors, those with more looking out for those with less, and everybody keeping an eye on the kids formed his concept of what life and community should be like, Smith said at the Yale School of Management on March 6. “It made a huge difference to have a community that cared about the wellbeing of the whole community.”
Smith’s talk was the inaugural Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series event. The new series showcases a diverse group of eminent practitioners with a focus on approaching important issues through both a professional and personal lens.
In a conversation moderated by Dean Kerwin K. Charles, Smith discussed his career path from engineering to private equity and explored his commitment to philanthropy. Among other initiatives, Smith is the founding director and president of Fund II Foundation, which supports efforts to conserve African American culture, rectify human rights abuses, promote music education, and protect the environment.
Smith earned an engineering degree from Cornell University and worked as a chemical engineer for six years. While he loved engineering and considered solving problems and creating devices the “most noble pursuit,” he decided to get an MBA when he realized that other disciplines also offered the ability to make a positive impact.
After his MBA, Smith learned the investment banking ropes at Goldman Sachs, focusing on mergers and acquisitions. His engineering background, he said, was a huge help when he worked on Goldman’s West Coast team. He invested in nascent ventures including Apple, and later, eBay. “No one knew [on the East Coast] what tech was at the time,” Smith said. “I could actually go talk tech with these CEOs and understand.”
Smith left Goldman to found Vista, which is now one of the world’s most active enterprise software-focused private equity firms. Today, Vista has a workforce of 600+ employees, including 190+ people on the investment team and an expansive value creation team, which is charged with delivering best practices to companies that Vista invests in or buys.
As a leader, Smith says he has a focus on fostering diversity and believes that companies led by diverse teams perform better over time. A range of personalities, aptitudes, and experiences, he said, create sustainable success, adding that it is also important to encourage buy-in among team members by supporting their growth and goals.
“It’s important to create space,” Smith said. “My job is to create a place where people can become their best selves.”
Smith called on business leaders to give back to the community by creating outlets to share knowledge and opportunity with underserved populations. He described his philanthropic approach as being motivated by the question, “What am I doing for my community that will enable my community to fully participate in things that I know about that they may not?”
Smith said he encourages his teams to “honor the opportunity” to give back to the community, and he advised Yale SOM students to do the same in their own careers. “You all are going to walk out of here with some skills and abilities that [others don’t have],” he said. “Use that.”