Robert F. Smith was born a fourth generation Coloradoan to Dr. William Robert Smith and Dr. Sylvia Myma Smith, who were both school teacher parents with PhDs. He grew up in a predominantly African American, middle class neighborhood in Denver. He attended Carson Elementary School and a newly-integrated school, the Grove Jr. High School in Denver.
When he was an infant, his mother carried him at the March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
In high school, he applied for an internship at Bell Labs but was told the program was intended for college students. Smith persisted, calling every day. When a student from M.I.T. did not show up, he got the position, and that summer he developed a reliability test for semiconductors.
Smith earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University. At Cornell he became a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha.
After working at Air Products & Chemicals, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and later at Kraft General Foods as a chemical engineer, where he earned two United States and two European patents, he attended Columbia Business School. Smith graduated with an honorary MBA with specialization in finance and marketing. From 1994–2000, he joined Goldman Sachs in technology investment banking, first in New York City and then in Silicon Valley. He advised on over $50 billion in merger and acquisition activity with companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, eBay and Yahoo. He was the first person at Goldman Sachs to focus solely on technology mergers and acquisitions and foreign countries.
In 2000, Smith founded Vista Equity Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm of which he is the principal founder, chairman and chief executive. Vista has over $26 billion in cumulative capital commitments. Vista has exclusively focused on the enterprise software, data and technology sectors. Among Vista’s portfolio companies are Finastra, TIBCO, Solera, Infloblox, EagleView, Lithium, Kibo, and Newscyle.
In 2017, Vista Equity Partners was reported to have $30 billion under management. and Robert F. Smith was named as Private Equity International's 2016 Game Changer of the Year.
January 2015, Vista Equity Partners was named the best performing private equity firm for the previous ten years, by the HEC-Dow Jones annual ranking conducted by professor Oliver Gottschalg. Preqin, a consulting firm that tracks the industry, reports that Vista’s third fund returned $2.46 for every dollar invested, better than every other big fund raised between 2006 and 2010, the boom years for private equity.
In October 2014, Vista closed its Fund V at $5.8 billion, its largest fund to date.
Smith was named as one of the "Philanthropy 50" by the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2017. In May 2017, The Giving Pledge announced that Smith had joined its ranks as the only African-American philanthropist.
Smith is the board chairman of Carnegie Hall; he is the first African American to hold that position.
In 2016, Cornell University recognized Smith's leadership by naming the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering after him.
Among the honors and awards Smith has received are the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Chairman's Award, Reginald F. Lewis Achievement Award, the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Robert Toigo Foundation, and the Ripple of Hope Award from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Smith was also awarded an honorary Doctorate of International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. He founded Project Realize – termed “Free Market Philanthropy” – in order to combine the best elements of the American free enterprise system with the core American ideals of giving back and lifting others up.
Smith is the founding director and president of the Fund II Foundation. He is the Chairman of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, serves on the board of overseers of Columbia Business School, as a member of the Cornell Engineering College Council, and a Trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco.
In July 2015, Smith married Hope Dworaczyk, a former model, healthy living advocate, and fashion editor. He has five children, three from a previous marriage and two with Dworaczyk. Their first child, Hendrix Robert Smith, was born in December 2014. Smith resides in Austin, Texas.