Robert F. Smith
Smith was honored with the Ronald H. Brown American Journey Award in 2017 based on his many charitable efforts. In particular, Smith has long been committed to uplifting underserved communities and helping others fulfill their own potential. His global view and tireless efforts to improve the lives of others led to his selection for the award. He learned these values from his parents. Every month, he saw his mother send a check to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), regardless of how much money the family had.
As the founding director and President of Fund II Foundation, Smith led efforts to provide the UNCF with the largest-ever investment in STEM education for Black Americans, giving thousands of young people the opportunity to develop skills that will help them prepare for future jobs.
Under Smith’s direction, Fund II Foundation also provided $20 million to fund Cornell University’s engineering program, a gift Smith personally matched. He then provided an additional $10 million for a Tech Scholars program to benefit Black students and women who pursue tech- and science-related degrees. In 2022, Smith donated another $15 million to Cornell to endow STEM scholarships.
Smith is the Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of NAF, an organization to which he donated $15 million to create internship opportunities, support Black American students and promote project-based learning programs at NAF Academies. He is also a Founding Partner of the REFORM Alliance and serves as Chairman of Carnegie Hall. Smith is also a Member of the Executive Committee of the Business Roundtable and is tied to both of his alma maters as a member of the Cornell Engineering College Council and a member of the Board of Overseers of Columbia Business School.
In 2016, Smith contributed $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a part of the Smithsonian Institute. It was, at the time, the largest gift ever given by an individual to the institution. His contribution supports a fellowship and internship program, the digitization of Black American photographs and audiovisual media and the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center, which allows people to interactively research their genealogy.
In 2017, Smith was the first Black American to sign the Giving Pledge, a commitment to donate half of his net worth to charitable causes. As a part of his philanthropic efforts, Smith co-founded Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), an initiative that is dedicated to accelerating racial equity in the six Southern U.S. regions where more than half of all Black Americans live.
At the 2019 Morehouse College graduation commencement address, Smith revealed that he would pay off the student loan debt of the entire graduating class. The total gift amounted to $34 million, including payment of funds borrowed by guardians for their graduates’ educations, and it helped establish the Historically Black College’s Student Success Program. Previously, Smith donated to Morehouse to fund scholarships and an outdoor study area.
Following his 2019 Morehouse gift, Smith envisioned an organization that could further help relieve the burden of college debt on young people. Smith’s vision became Student Freedom Initiative (SFI), a nonprofit that focuses on providing support resources and affordable access to college education to students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). Smith currently is the Chairman of SFI and jump-started the program with a personal donation of $50 million, matching the amount donated by Fund II Foundation.
In addition to the Ronald H. Brown American Journey Award, Smith has been recognized for his philanthropic service with many other accolades. In 2023, Smith was an honoree of the George H.W. Bush Points of Light Award and received Foster Love’s Founder’s Award, along with several other honors. In 2022, Smith received theGrio’s Philanthropy Icon Award, and in 2019, he received both the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy and the UNCF’s President’s Award. A year before that, he was the recipient of the International Medical Corps’ Humanitarian of the Year Award and the Morehouse Candle Award in Business and Philanthropy. Prior to those, he received the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Award, the Ebony John H. Johnson Award, the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Robert Toigo Foundation and the Ripple of Hope Award from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, among others.