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Who is Austin’s Robert F. Smith

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Philanthropist and entrepreneur Robert F. Smith lives with his family in Austin and takes pride in the city as well as the surrounding interconnected ecological systems. 

Smith is passionate that the great outdoors are necessary for health and wellbeing. Smith is Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners (Vista) and sees that the future strength of the U.S. economy depends upon finding innovative solutions to global climate change. 

Investing in the planet starts at the local level. This is why Smith has worked with The Trail Foundation to ensure the 10-mile Butler Trail around Lady Bird Lake is maintained as a natural sanctuary central to the lifeblood of downtown Austin.

Austin is growing. To ensure The Trail facilities remain sustainable, Smith pledged $1.25 million to the Trail Foundation’s Bridge at Congress Avenue project which was completed in 2018.

“Those of us lucky enough to call Austin home, and the many visitors to this city, use the Butler Trail at Lady Bird Lake every single day,” Smith said in 2018 at the groundbreaking for the project. “An investment in the Trail is an investment in Austin’s future—one that will keep our most cherished outdoor asset safe, accessible, and enjoyable for many years to come.” 

The Outdoors are for Everyone

Smith was born at a high altitude in Denver, CO, which has an abundance of natural beauty in its greater metropolitan area. He grew up with access to and a great appreciation for wild places. Ensuring the benefits of nature reach vulnerable and minority populations is one of his personal philanthropic missions.

One of the missions of the National Park Service is public education. Because of Smith’s generosity the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home and the home where he and Coretta Scott King raised their family will continue to keep Civil Rights history alive for generations to come.

As founding director and President of Fund II Foundation, Smith holds that the outdoors are for everyone. One of the four principles of the Fund II Foundation nonprofit focuses on conservation, outdoor education and providing the benefits of the outdoors to all people, regardless of age or background.

The outdoors should be inclusive. To match theory with practice, the trail bridge at Congress Avenue is ADA accessible. The new wider path Smith helped sponsor makes room for the full variety of humanity to experience connectivity and beauty.

Outdoor Education

An avid philanthropist and the first African American to take the Giving Pledge, Smith uses his philanthropic reach to empower the next generation, a theme which has played a major part in his philanthropic strategy. 

Smith co-founded Lincoln Hills Cares, a Colorado nonprofit dedicated to bringing the benefits of the outdoors to enhance science and history education to benefit students who typically lack access to these vital resources due to family, social or economic circumstances.

Smith is well known as the tech entrepreneur who pledged to cover the student loan debt of the Morehouse College Class of 2019. In the same spirit of helping young people to invest in their communities by starting businesses and careers in STEM fields, Smith donated $50 million to Student Freedom Initiative in 2020. Lesser known is Smith’s contribution to Morehouse College for an outdoor study area.

To his alma maters Cornell University and Columbia School of Business, Smith earmarked his respective gifts for STEM facilities, scholarships for African American and minority students and to ensure top student prospects aren’t discouraged by the price of admission. 

Time Magazine named Smith a TIME100 influencer because of his commitment to building resources and pathways for Black and minority communities.

Smith is an engineer and tech investor who is Founder, Chairman and CEO of leading global investment firm Vista Equity Partners. His dedication to inclusion and diversity extends from the corporate setting to the great outdoors.

The History of Being Black Outdoors

The Trail Foundation answered public calls for social justice with an inclusive message on its website reiterating its mission of diversity, equity and inclusion. The Trail’s message to all park users is simple: the outdoors are for everyone. This is a message in keeping with Smith’s philosophy.

The history of outdoor spaces in the U.S. hasn’t always been one of inclusion. In Texas and other states Black Civilian Conservation Corps workers were excluded from the parks they helped build. Recent history shows that even bird-watching while Black can be an activity fraught with anxieties and dangers.

Resources to understand more about this part of the history of the outdoors can be found on American Trails, a nonprofit that supports safe trail access for all uses and users.

And to find out more about Black history in America, Executive Producer Robert F. Smith’s Webby-award winning video podcast Black History in Two Minutes can help provide quick insightful context.

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