DENVER - Growing up in and around East High School, Robert Smith learned the value of persistence that still serves him today.
"When you had parents who are teachers, you learn to be relentless in your pursuit of excellence in whatever craft it is that you are interested in," Smith said.
Smith is delivering the commencement speech at the University of Denver's graduate ceremony Friday afternoon. After years of keeping a low profile, Smith has embraced the public eye over the past few years agreeing to speak with Next for his first television interview in the United States. He wants to serve as a role model for all especially young black men.
"It's important that these young African-American men to understand there are people like Robert Smith out there who can actually be learned in the sciences and engineering and in finance," Smith said.
As a junior at East, Smith became enthralled with computers. So much so, he wanted to obtain an internship at Bell Labs in Denver. Even though that internship is reserved for college students, he called Bell Labs for two weeks straight and once-a-week for nearly six months before finally inviting him for an interview. Smith ended working at Bell for years which fostered his love for science.
"To hear what engineers did for a living, I really wanted to understand and be a part of that," Smith said.
After graduating from Cornell University, Smith got drawn into the world of finance securing a job with Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs. After years of growth, Smith decided to take a chance by starting his own company in 2000. His colleagues thought he was crazy to leave a large, successful firm.
"Like all things, you have to decide if you take a risk or not and I looked at it and said, well, how am I gonna feel you know 15, 20 years from now if I don't take this risk and go try this," Smith said. "There is that fear, that constant fear of you know stepping backwards you go off the cliff. When I left Goldman, it was really that. I didn't really have a backup plan."
His gamble paid big off as his endeavor Vista Equity Partners developed into a $30 billion company. Smith himself landed on the illustrious Forbes List as the second richest African-American in the nation, worth about $2.5 billion. He sits behind Oprah Winfrey and ahead of Michael Jordan on the wealthiest list.
"I grew up in a community where it was important to always give back to the community -- opportunity," Smith said.
His financial success has led him to make large charitable donations. He gave $50 million to his alma mater, Cornell University. Smith contributed $20 million to the Smithsonian for the founding of an African-American history museum.
"If you look at a lot of the gifts that I'm focused on driving, directing, and giving, a lot of them are really towards creating opportunity for African-Americans and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education," Smith said.
Though he is based in Austin, Texas, Smith owns a ranch in the mountains called Lincoln Hills which gives minority kids and wounded military veterans a chance to experience what Colorado is all about like horses, hiking, and fishing.
"We get about 5,000 school kids every summer. We get about two-to-three hundred wounded veterans through our Anglers of Honor program," Smith said. "All those things are an important part of what I call building the fabric of what makes Colorado great."
Smith is also the first African-American chairman of Carnegie Hall. His father attended DU on a music scholarship and Smith believes that music is key to being successful in life.
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"A big part of my thrust is to drive music education back into the classrooms and into the schools," Smith said.
As he delivers his commencement speech to DU graduates, Smith wants them to do what he did, be focused and persistent.
"To pick a purpose and to be dogged in the pursuit of that purpose," Smith said.
Lessons that he says learned growing up in and around East High School.
"Denver will always be my home. Colorado will always be my home," Smith said.
And, he will always be the guy who grew up on the north side of City Park wanting more from life.
"At the end of the day, I'm really just a quiet engineer just trying to create an elegant solution to the complex problems that we face," Smith said.
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