The billionaire promises to pay off a graduating class’s student loans—and finds himself under attack.
Robert Smith was raised in a working-class Denver neighborhood in the 1970s. A high-school science class in his junior year sparked his interest in transistors, the building blocks of computers, cellphones and other electronic devices. Transistors were invented in the 1940s by AT&T ’s Bell Labs, which had a facility not far from the teenager’s home. He applied for a summer internship there but was told it was available only to juniors and seniors in college. Unbowed and impatient, he spent months pestering people in the human-resources department to give him a shot. Eventually, they did.
Mr. Smith went on to earn an engineering degree at Cornell and a business degree from Columbia. He worked as a chemical engineer and then as an investment banker. In 2000, he started a private-equity firm that focuses on investing in computer software companies. His net worth today is $5 billion, which makes him, according to Forbes magazine, the richest black person in America.
Mr. Smith urges others to be generous with their wealth, and he leads by example. He has financed college scholarships for minorities and women and set up a foundation that exposes inner-city kids to nature and the arts. He funds nonprofit groups that support underprivileged children interested in studying math and science. He gave $50 million to his alma mater Cornell and another $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. He has pledged to commit more than half of his wealth to philanthropy.
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