Graduates react after hearing billionaire Robert F. Smith is paying all student debt for the Class of 2019 during the Morehouse College graduation ceremony in Atlanta on Sunday, May 19, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Billionaire Robert F. Smith’s 5 rules for living well

When technology investor and billionaire Robert F. Smith gave the keynote address at the Morehouse College graduation ceremonies Sunday morning, his speech wasn’t short.

He spoke of his education, his grandparents, his jobs, his road to independence, and a few parents, sitting out in the hot sun, were thinking, “get on with it.”

Then Smith unwrapped the best kicker of any graduation speech ever: he was picking up the tab. He said his family would make a grant to eliminate the student loans of the class of 2019.

Watch: How Robert Smith told Morehouse graduates he would pay their student loans

Commencement speaker billionaire Robert F. Smith announces he is paying all student debt for the Class of 2019 during the Morehouse College graduation ceremony in Atlanta on Sunday, May 19, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Just before that impressive closer, however, he offered a few rules for living. He took the opportunity to counsel the Morehouse men in that moment, he said, “because once you cross that stage, we may not be able to tell you much.”

Smith’s advice:

One: “Greatness is born of the grind, so embrace the grind.”

Those who raise their hand to accept extra responsibility will find that they develop extra skills, he said.

Master your discipline. Be willing to ask for those opportunities, even if it means late nights.

Two: “Take thoughtful risks.”

He spoke of his decision to leave behind excellent jobs at Kraft General Foods as a chemical engineer, and at Goldman Sachs as a technology investor, to start his own company, Vista Equity Partners, and how troubling that decision was for family members who thought he was risking too much. 

Three: “Always be intentional about the words you choose,” he said. “It matters immensely. It will define you.”

Four: Believe in yourself, your abilities, your worth. “You are enough,” he said. “There is no room on this earth that you can’t enter with your head held high.”

Five: Load up the bus.

Smith called on his fellow members of the Class of 2019 to make the world a better place. On the road to prosperity, he said, you must not only own the bus, you must drive the bus, and “pick up as many people as you can along the way.”

“I’m counting on you to load up that bus.”

Speaking before the ceremonies, Smith expressed admiration for those who actually put in the years required to earn advanced degrees, suggesting that he himself hasn’t yet paid the price for the honorary doctorate in humane letters he was granted by Morehouse Sunday.

“Both my parents earned their doctorates the hard way,” he said. (He did admit, however, that his bachelor’s degree from Cornell and his master’s in business from Columbia University “took some heavy lifting.”)

Jewel Williams, whose grandson was graduating Sunday, sat under the shade of the trees in the Century Campus quadrangle at midday and mused on the morning’s events. Smith’s speech was a bit too long, she thought at first. But when Smith revealed his surprise gift, she changed her mind: “He could talk all day long if he wanted to.” 

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