By Ellen McGirt
May 20, 2019

Today’s raceAhead holds space for all the extraordinary college commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients who spoke from the heart this past weekend, nailed it, and then checked the news.

We know you did your very best.

But this this speech, delivered yesterday at Morehouse College by Robert Smith, the billionaire founder of Vista Equity Partners, is simply one for the ages:

“Men of Morehouse, you are surrounded by people who have helped you arrive at this sacred place on this sacred day,” he said to the crowd. And then he paused. “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. I’ve got the alumni over there,” he said with a nod, “and this is a challenge to you alumni. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

It took a minute to sink in. Then, the class of nearly 400 graduates of the all-male HBCU began to chant, “MVP! MVP!”

While it’s a gift worth about $40 million for the men of Morehouse, the move raises critical awareness for issues facing all students of color.

There are 44 million student borrowers who collectively owe $1.5 trillion in loan debt in the United States, the second highest consumer debt category in the country. But in general, black and Hispanic students rely more heavily on education financing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an estimated 86.8% of black students borrow federal student loans to attend a four-year public college, as opposed to 59.9% of white students. They leave school owing more, earning less, and at greater risk of defaulting. And low-income and first-generation graduates are the most likely to default and are increasingly unable to find relief in an unforgiving and archaic system.

He ended his remarks by challenging the grads and alums to find a way to pay the gift forward, a dynamic that Smith knows well.

The private equity titan, who makes his money buying, developing, and selling software and data companies — and irreverently billed by Forbes (in a story he declined to be interviewed for) as “richer than Oprah” — has been a quiet philanthropic force for years.

Smith often gives through his Fund II Foundation, which has donated more than $40 million, anonymously, until recently, to preserve African American culture through the National Park System. Among other things, the fund has been instrumental in buying and saving the homes of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Wow. What a love-power move by Robert Smith,” Bernice A. King CEO of @TheKingCenter, tweeted after his speech. “I believe it’s the start of something major. I’m grateful for what Mr. Smith, who purchased my father’s birth home for the National Park Service, is doing for @Morehouse, which happens to be Daddy’s alma mater.”

But he opens his own checkbook, too. Smith was also the second biggest private donor to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, giving $20 million, just behind Oprah’s $21 million.

But like so many people, he was motivated to take more public stands after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

He talked to The Washington Post as the NMAAHC prepared to open in 2016, and said he’d begun to fear that the country’s increasing racial divide was poised to derail the kinds of progress that meant once meant opportunity for people like him.

“The vision I was sold as a kid is unraveling. I see the little tears in the fabric of society every day. This cannot be,” he said. He talked about how has come to expect being harassed by the police while driving himself to the airport – to board his private jet. “You shouldn’t have to be fearful of your life,” he said. “You should be able to drive to the airport and not be stopped three to seven times a year.”

Since Mr. Smith has now become a household name, it may encourage other ultra-wealthy and self-made black entrepreneurs of his generation to assert their power more publicly. I suspect there are more than we might think, since they’re rarely included on the lists and related conferences that currently define public power.

While we wait, I’ll keep asking the bigger questions about why love-power moves like this are even necessary. We all should.

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