Try as they might, it’s doubtful most commencement speakers make a lasting impression on their listeners. But billionaire Robert F. Smith made sure he’ll be remembered, making a generous pledge as the featured speaker at Morehouse College’s graduation ceremony.
Smith committed himself to paying off the college loans amassed by members of the 2019 graduating class at the Atlanta school.
“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,” he said. “My family is making a grant to eliminate” the student loans.
Smith’s news stunned the crowd of nearly 400 graduates, who leapt from their chairs, responding with shouts and applause.
Calling the 2019 graduates “my class, he said, “I know my class will make sure they pay this forward.” He challenged the students at the historically black all-male school to “make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward because we are enough to take care of our own community.”
He added, “We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American dream, and we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”
According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Smith’s family will donate an estimated $40 million to cover the cost of the student loans.
In January, Smith gave the school $1.5 million for an endowed scholarship and a new park in which students will be able to study.
Smith, 56, was raised in Denver, went to Cornell University as an undergraduate and then to Columbia Business School. Trained as an engineer, he founded Vista Equity Partners, a firm that invests in software companies. Forbes magazine has estimated the company’s assets exceed $46 billion and that Smith’s “real-time net worth” is $5 billion.
During Sunday’s ceremony, Smith was presented with an honorary doctorate degree, along with actress Angela Bassett and psychologist Edmund Gordon.
Morehouse thanked the philanthropist with a Facebook post shortly after the event.
He is the biggest private donor to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and has partnered with Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge” initiative to contribute more than 50% of his wealth to humanitarian causes such as disaster relief and poverty.