Black Success

Here’s why Robert F. Smith is the hallmark of originality.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend a Talk at Goldman Sachs featuring African American billionaire Robert F. Smith. The self-made man is the prototype for the American dream: started from humble beginnings, persisted through life and career challenges and founded a successful business. Although his journey shares the common ingredients that make up a typical American success story, Robert F. Smith stands out as a great example of what Adam Grant calls an “original”.

Those who know Smith’s story will usually favor his stubborn persistence in securing an internship at Bell Labs. He applied for the position while in High School and was told the program was intended for college students. That didn’t stop Smith, who ended up calling the assistant every day and then every week for months before finally landing the gig. That summer he developed a reliability test for semiconductors.

He went on to earn his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University and his MBA from Columbia Business School. Perchance, and with a little reluctance, he accepted a job offer at Goldman Sachs where he began his foray into investment banking.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

At the peak of Industry 4.0 Robert had two major advantages: first given his background in technology he had an innate understanding for how it could change how we do business and secondly, he was the only one who had this perspective in his field. Robert Smith was the first and arguably the only person at Goldman Sachs who could work on technology mergers and acquisitions.

Smith left Goldman in 2000 to start Vista Equity Partners. There he focused on buying and selling little-known software companies. According to Preqin, a London-based private-equity tracker, Vista Equity Partners is among the “top 50 most consistent performing buyout fund managers” in the world for 2016. “I invest in intellectual property and encourage a culture of innovation,” Smith says about his firm. He attributes part of his success to the people he hires: a crop of highly intelligent and driven people, not based on Ivy League pretenses but on pure ability.

Originality is an act of creative destruction.

Adam Grant Originals
“If you’re gonna make connections which are innovative,” Steve Jobs said back in 1982, “you have to not have the same bag of experience as everyone else does”.

So how does Robert Smith live up to being an original beyond his success? Here are a few excerpts from Adam Grant’s tome that will help paint the picture:

  • “Rice professor Erik Dane finds that the more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world.” Being an outsider looking in is what afforded Smith his discerning eye for technology and its future implications. 
  • “It is when people have moderate expertise in a particular domain that they’re the most open to radically creative ideas.” Because Smith was learning about the industry, he wasn’t stuck in its traditional ways and could make an argument for opening a tech division.  
  • “The greatest leaders don’t stop at introducing original ideas into the world. They create cultures that promote originality in others.”  Invest in the feedback of your peers and their intellectual property. We’re not saying to steal your friend’s ideas, what we’re suggesting is that you open up your project or company in order to gain formidable constructive criticism. Smith has done this by ensuring he hires the best of the crop. 

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