Billionaire Robert F. Smith showed he walks the walk every bit as much as he talks the talk when he pledged to pay off student loans for everyone in the Morehouse College graduating class (396 students) while giving the commencement speech this past Sunday.
"On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we're gonna put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate [your] student loans," Smith told the crowd.
Since then, some internet trolls have been snapping at another famous billionaire — Oprah Winfrey — for not pledging to pay off student loans for graduates at Colorado College after her commencement speech there this spring.
According to Fox News, one Instagram user slammed Oprah when she posted a photo of herself giving a graduate a copy of her book, "The Path Made Clear," arguing that she should have written him a check instead.
"I don’t know who this guy is but he sure is happy to graduate! I shook hands with all 571 members of [Colorado College's] Class of 2019 and gave them a copy of 'The Path Made Clear,'" she said in the post, prompting one user to say she "should have paid off their student debt."
While Oprah can be criticized for a multitude of things, charitable giving is certainly not one of them — and that includes helping the underprivileged procure an education. Oprah immediately shot back at her critics, noting she had "already paid 13 m in scholarships" while having "put over 400 men thru @morehouse1867."
Fox News reports that Oprah's contribution "created a fund that has grown to $12 million and has awarded scholarships to more than 400 men. Winfrey is one of Morehouse College’s top donors in the institution’s history." On the final episode of the "Oprah Winfrey Show," beneficiaries of her scholarship fund repaid the favor by donating $300,000 to Morehouse College.
According to Forbes, Robert F. Smith felt compelled to give the Morehouse graduates such a boost because the commencement speaker at his own graduation had previously had a profound effect on him.
In 1994, Smith was graduating from Columbia Business School and thinking about pursuing a career in marketing. An engineer by training, Smith had already worked on products at companies like Kraft General Foods and Goodyear Tire & Rubber. The last thing Smith wanted was to go to Wall Street and become a financier.
The speaker at Smith’s Columbia graduation was John Utendahl, who founded a pioneering black-run investment bank. Utendahl noticed the young African-American man sitting among the other Columbia Business School graduates. Utendahl sought Smith out after the ceremony and invited him to lunch. Over tuna sandwiches, Utendahl convinced Smith to ditch his other plans and give investment banking a try, helping Smith land a job at Goldman Sachs.
Utendahl described the young Smith as a man destined for greatness when he first met him. "There is a spark, a poise, even a wisdom that you can't teach or learn. Some people are just blessed to have it," Utendahl told Forbes. "That's how I felt when I met Robert as a young man."