Businessman and philanthropist Robert F. Smith has been a fierce advocate for equity in higher education and through his latest project, he’s putting the focus on empowering scholars at his alma mater. The Vista Equity Partners founder has gifted Cornell University’s College of Engineering with a multi-million dollar endowment.
The $15 million donation will support the cultivation of scholarship initiatives for students from underserved communities and underrepresented groups who are charting paths in STEM. The institution will develop three grant programs—including the Robert F. Smith Graduate Fellowship Fund, the Robert F. Smith Undergraduate Scholarship Fund and the Robert F. Smith Student Success Fund—to eradicate barriers to entry within engineering and ultimately diversify the industry which has historically been plagued by the lack of racial and gender representation. Research shows Black students earned 7 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees and make up 9 percent of the industry’s workforce.
The initiatives are purposefully designed to provide financial assistance for HBCU graduates interested in furthering their education at Cornell through master’s and doctorate programs and diverse undergraduate students in need. The funds will support at least seven undergraduate scholars, 12 master’s students and five doctoral degree candidates annually. A fraction of the endowment will go towards mentorship and professional development opportunities.
Smith—who was part of Cornell’s 1985 graduating class and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the university—hopes his contribution empowers scholars to boldly step into industries where they don’t often see themselves reflected and transform these spaces with their brilliance.
“My goal has always been to lift up and provide opportunity for those who have historically faced barriers to success,” Smith—who was the recipient of Cornell University’s Distinguished Alumni Award—shared in a statement. “My hope is that these funds will elevate more students and afford them the opportunity to attend my alma mater and pursue careers in STEM, as well as continue to support the diverse pipeline of extraordinary talent that Cornell produces.”
Martha E. Pollack, who serves as president of the university, added Smith’s “leadership in advancing equity and making higher education accessible to all students will have an impact for generations to come.”
This isn’t the first time Smith—who is part of the Cornell Tech Council and the Cornell Engineering College Council—has gifted the school with a generous donation. Six years ago, he provided Cornell with $50 million through his Fund II Foundation to help further chemical and biomolecular engineering research and create scholarships. Cornell’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering was later named after him.
News about the endowment comes months after Smith joined forces with Prudential Financial to create grants for HBCU scholars facing financial burdens.