Smith gave a commencement speech at American University's 2015 graduation, where he spoke about his earliest attempts to get work in Silicon Valley while he was still in high school.
"I dug up the phone number for Bell Labs to ask about summer internships," Smith said. "They said I could apply if I were a junior or senior in college. I said that was fantastic, because, while I was only a junior in high school, I was getting A's in computer science and my advanced math courses, so it was like I was in college. Much to my dismay, they disagreed."
But Smith said he kept calling back "every day for two weeks straight," and after an intern from MIT didn't show up, he was accepted as an intern.
Smith attended Cornell for undergrad but never lost touch with Bell Labs. He continued to work there as an intern during his summer and winter breaks before graduating Cornell with a chemical engineering degree.
In 2016, Smith donated $50 million to his alma mater.
"When I finished business school and decided to join the tumultuous world of investment banking, my family and friends spoke up with concerns about my sanity," Smith said in his American University commencement speech.
Smith would rise to cohead of enterprise systems and storage-investment banking at Goldman Sachs, advising on $50 billion of deals from 1994 to 2000.
Smith left Goldman Sachs, where he worked on tech M&A, in 2000 and launched his own private equity firm.
Smith's former colleagues at Goldman Sachs were initially skeptical of his new venture.
"When I left my post at Goldman Sachs just after we had gone public to set up a private equity firm called Vista Equity Partners … my mentors and colleagues at Goldman thought I had lost it," he said in his speech at American University.
In the years since its founding, the firm has generated bumper returns for investors and gradually increased assets under management.
Vista has posting annualized returns of 22% since its beginning, according to Forbes.
Silicon Valley may be best known for billion-dollar valuations and soaring real-estate prices, but Smith's strategy is practically contrarian: He's investing in software and technology companies that aren't in the least bit flashy.
The New York Times called Vista's hiring strategy "decidedly unusual" for how it uses tests to whittle down candidate lists.
Vista uses a personality test developed by IBM that measures social and technical skills, as well as applicants' interest in arts and humanities.
Smith's strategy — as well as his work ethic — have won him praise on Wall Street. He's the "antithesis of [Blackstone CEO Steve] Schwarzman," a tech-industry banker told Business Insider. The banker went on to praise Vista, as well, saying "there is no shortage of PE shops that have succumbed to style creep and/or chasing fleeting trends, but Vista has remained focused on enterprise software and technology."
Another banker told Business Insider that Smith was "one of the smartest men I've ever met."
The couple married in 2015 in a lavish ceremony on Italy's Amalfi Coast, where they rented out the Hotel Villa Cimbrone and put on a star-studded display that included entertainment from Seal, John Legend, and Bryan McKnight.
The couple has two children together, and Smith has three other children from a previous marriage.
Many private equity executives are regular donors to campaigns on both sides of the aisle, and Smith is no exception.
Smith has donated at least $1.6 million to the Democratic National Committee, according to Open Secrets, a non-profit, nonpartisan research group that tracks the effects of money and lobbying on elections and public policy. He's donated thousands more to specific Democratic candidates including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and Chuck Schumer.
Smith also donated $5,000 to Republican Mitt Romney, according to the research group.
Smith signed the pledge in 2017.
In his Giving Pledge bio, Smith promised to invest half of his net worth during his lifetime "to causes that support equality of opportunity for African Americans, as well as causes that cultivate ecological protection to ensure a livable planet for future generations."
In 2016, Smith donated $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
In Austin, Smith has started programs supporting music education and minority entrepreneurship, according to The New York Times.
Smith's firm, Vista Equity partners, has offices in Austin, Chicago, New York City, Oakland, and San Francisco.
In 2016, Smith and his wife bought a $20 million Malibu mansion from "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Yolanda Hadid.
And in 2018, Smith dropped $59 million on a three-story New York City penthouse in the Getty, a new luxury building in Chelsea.
In a 2015 interview with Columbia Business School, Smith said fly fishing helps him be "more mindful, more thoughtful," adding: "It makes you slow down and actually focus. You have to focus on everything that you're doing, seconds at a time."
Smith also serves as the chairman for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. He's also on the Board of Overseers of Columbia Business School, a Member of the Cornell Engineering College Council, and a Trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco, according to his bio.
Smith ranks third in Forbes' Black Billionaires list, following Nigerian cement and commodities tycoon Aliko Dangote, worth $10.9 billion, and Nigerian-born Mike Adenuga, who made his fortune in the oil and mobile telecoms industries and is worth $9.1 billion.