As a junior at Denver’s East High School in the 1970s, Robert F. Smith showed a fascination for the geekiest subject there: Computer science. The transistor held particular wonder for him. This small device, a crucial valve controlling the flow of electrons within a computer, had been invented at Bell Labs. Bell had a nearby office. Maybe he should work at Bell, too.
After securing the number, Smith phoned and inquired about a summer internship.
Yes, Bell did have one, he learned, but only college upperclassmen could apply. Smith had straight A’s in math and computer science. Would that count?
No, Bell said, it would not. Undaunted by this initial rejection, Smith called back every day for two weeks—HR stopped answering after Day 2—and then cut back on how often he called …to every Monday for five months. Eventually, he was rewarded for his doggedness. After an MIT student didn’t show up in June, Bell called Smith. Could he come in for an interview?
“I ran my own race. I knew what I wanted, and my persistence paid off, and I came in and interviewed. They liked me, and I got the internship,” Smith said in a commencement address at American University earlier this year in which he told this story about Bell. “In fact, I worked there for the next four years during summer and winter breaks.”
Yes, his stubborn streak has indeed paid off. Smith, 52, joins The Forbes 400 with a $2.5 billion fortune and a No. 268 spot on the list of the richest Americans. (Another noteworthy point: Smith becomes the second richest African-American after only Oprah Winfrey, No. 211, elbowing aside Michael Jordan, No. 1741 on the global Billionaires list.)
Smith is the founder, chairman and chief executive of Vista Equity Partners, an Austin, Texas, private equity firm with $15.9 billion in client assets.
Vista has made a killing— 30% annual returns aren’t unusual—in enterprise software, a glamorous and fiercely competitive field where a little tough tenacity goes a long way. Smith owns more than 50% of Vista, recently valued at $4.3 billion after it sold a minority stake to Neuberger Berman’s PE unit, Dyal Partners, in July.