Exclusive Interview with Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year: Robert F. Smith

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Entrepreneurship in this country has in many ways become institutionalized by (if not endemic to) university campuses like at Cornell with eHub. As someone who did not pursue the entrepreneurship path until years out of school, do you think that these changes are essential to the creation of a new generation of entrepreneurs or serve as distractions to driven students?

These programs are definitely helpful and can help push some of our brightest entrepreneurial minds in the right direction by offering the right resources, support, and counsel. Having institutionalized entrepreneurship programs can help the right individuals learn some of the lessons of entrepreneurship in a faster and more effective manner.

This is is the moment to become an entrepreneur. We live in a unique time in history; for the first time, opportunity can be created without inheriting massive amounts of capital, without ownership of land or natural resources or even people. For the first time, wealth can be created through the power of one’s mind, thoughts and ideas—developed, monetized, and instantaneously distributed across the globe. Intellectual property has become the new currency of business and nance, and the promise of brainpower to move individuals, families, and communities from poverty to prosperity has never been more possible. We need entrepreneurs to harness this power and create jobs.

As you have progressed from a budding entrepreneur to a private equity titan, how has your involvement in your own business changed? Furthermore, what unforeseen challenges have you faced in recent years as a CEO?

We built Vista for scale. We have taken lessons from what we have learned about running so ware companies and captured them in 100+ Vista’s Best Practices. While a small team and I were testing and honing these practices in the beginning, we now have a team of nearly 200 technical experts focused exclusively on supporting our portfolio companies adopt best practices and create value.

I like to think of Vista as a software company – the 4th largest when our portfolio companies are taken together in a private equity wrapper.  The challenge I face as a CEO every day, as do the CEOs of our so ware companies, isfinding the best talent.  There are over 2,700 open jobs across the Vista ecosystem. We are looking for people with technology skills who we can train.  This is precisely why on-ramping African-Americans and women into our technology economy is such a priority in my philanthropy; the jobs are there if they have the skills and opportunity to access them.

Recently, through your personal contribution and the Fund II Foundation,  The Robert Frederick Smith Tech Scholars Program was launched to provide scholarships and fellowships to underrepresented minority and female students. In an ideal world, what kind of impact would you like this program to make, both here at Cornell and in the United States as a whole?

I want these programs to create access and opportunity for minorities and women to access jobs and become leaders in the technology economy. Technology is changing almost every facet of the way we do our jobs and live our lives. It is not only important to have the necessary skills, it’s also critical for students to have the infrastructure of support and mentors around you. We can do this by producing a critical mass of job-ready minorities and women. I expect these scholars will live up to their potential and their responsibility to create opportunities for others, serve as mentors, and lead as role models for legions more minorities and women.

We need to harness the full power of the American workforce and their creativity and technology and provide the most adept platform for this to happen. We need to harness the full power of the American workforce and their creativity, and technology provides the most adept platform for this to happen.

What are specific endeavors universities like Cornell can implement to further increase and instill entrepreneurship?

My definition of entrepreneurship does not mean just starting a company. Not everyone should start their own business, but everyone should be entrepreneurial about their careers. Teaching the entrepreneurial spirit of asking tough questions, constantly learning, demanding excellence, taking calculated risks, and bouncing back from setbacks are all part of Cornell’s curriculum and should continue to be.

Moving from an investment banking position at Goldman Sachs to taking a leap of faith to start your own private equityfirm, what’s your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs to decide to listen to your gut versus other people’s opinions?

I often remind my children of the three words that resonated with me in my early years in college, at Goldman Sachs, and when I made the decision to go out on my own: “You Are Enough.” In essence, this means that everyone should nd their destiny. My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to find their courage, conviction and resolve.

What do you think are the next steps with Artificial Intelligence? What roles will investors like yourself play with Artificial Intelligence?

All industries are being transformed by Artificial Intelligence today. The future is already here. I was recently the moderator on the Artificial Intelligence panel at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. I was joined by the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella; the CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty; the Founder and CEO of Healthtap, Ron Gutman; and Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab. It was a fascinating discussion. There was a common understanding that we need to invest in cognitive solutions that are designed to enhance human intelligence, not replace it. We also discussed the need to agree to a set of principles for transparency and trust to manage the ethical considerations related to AI in order to protect privacy and the dignity of work. There was also a clear recognition that we could use AI to increase productivity in education systems. The same effort being devoted to AI in enterprise and consumer applications should be directed to AI in education systems to help create more opportunities and avert accelerating income disparities.

Do you think young talent’sfixation on prestigious startups is to the detriment of technological advancement and industry innovation?

There’s definitely a glamor around tech startups, but the vast majority of younger people I have worked with and meet are mission-focused and care about working at a place that merges values and value. We should really push back against this cliché that everyone wants to move to Silicon Valley to start the next billion dollar company. Young people are smart enough to realize that these are one in-a-million ideas, and while they do of course want to earn a good living and support their families, this is a very community-focused and serious-minded generation for the most part.

There is a common opinion that the most lucrative careers are not necessarily the most beneficial to society. Do you think your social impact could have been as large had you pursued a career in the sciences or engineering?

I don’t agree. Lucrative careers can create jobs, contribute to GDP and unleash a level of productivity that raises the standard of living for everyone. The social impact that I have achieved – through my business and my philanthropy – is precisely because I am an engineer. Once an engineer always an engineer. My joy of figuring things out, taking risks, and finding elegant solutions to complex problems has allowed me to deliver social impact and consistent returns. I take a similar approach to philanthropy – figuring out how to scale programs and innovations that work is the perfect role for an engineer.