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Billionaire Robert Smith on building capital in the African American community

Robert Smith, CEO and chairman of Vista Equity Partners, sat down with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to discuss how he sees the future of capitalism as well as his decision to pay off the student loans for 400 Morehouse students who graduated from the university in 2019.

In May 2019, Robert F. Smith, founder and CEO of private-equity firm Vista Equity Partners, gave a commencement speech to Morehouse College’s graduating class. Then, the billionaire announced that he and his family would pay off the roughly 400 graduating seniors’ student loans — as well as loans taken out by students’ parents and guardians.

The total gift of roughly $34 million brought the crowd to their feet and sparked a conversation about student debt, college affordability and Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Morehouse.

At the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Smith spoke with CNBC about the economic and philosophical principals behind his decision.

“Capitalism still is the most efficient system on the planet for uplifting humanity generally,” he said. “But of course, in general, we go up, but we have individual pockets that don’t necessarily participate. African Americans have traditionally not participated,” he said, pointing to the Homestead Act, the Southern Homestead Act and redlining as examples of how African Americans have been kept from gaining generational wealth through land ownership.

Student debt, says Smith, would likely have forced the Morehouse graduates to delay buying a home and participating in this system of creating wealth.

Indeed, research has found that student debt is forcing borrowers to delay buying homes. A 2019 survey by TD Bank of more than 1,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 39 who paid off or are currently repaying student loan debt found that 36% say they have delayed buying a home because of student debt.

Marco Di Maggio, a professor at Harvard Business School, said Smith’s generosity will have significant financial implications for the Morehouse students. He cited his own research that tracked 10,000 people who had their private student loans discharged and found that the borrowers increased their salaries by $4,000 over three years and carried less debt overall after they no longer had to make student loan payments.

But beyond these economic logistics, Smith said his decision ultimately came from his personal philosophy about freedom.

“The whole inspiration really comes from an ideological position around how do you liberate the human spirit. I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful than the liberated human spirit,” he said, asking himself, “What’s a good way to liberate 400 spirits 400 years after 1619?” in reference to the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first African slave in America.

Smith said he was overwhelmed by the response he got from students and their families after his donation. “It was one of the most beautiful expressions I’ve ever seen of the human spirit, liberated en masse,” remembered Smith. “It was wonderful.”

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