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Wealthiest African American says COVID-19 can be an opportunity for systemic change

The wealthiest African American, according to Forbes, says that the current coronavirus pandemic has hit especially Black Americans hard after decades of social and economic injustices, but it also allows systemic change.

Robert F. Smith is an American businessman, philanthropist, chemical engineer, and investor. He is the founder, chairman, and CEO of investment firm Vista Equity Partners. Forbes has named Smith on several business lists, including its list of the 100 greatest living business minds, and the wealthiest people in America.

Image credit JUST Capital and JUST Capital Foundation

He is also very active in volunteering activities. For example, he made a huge donation in 2019, when he pledged to eliminate $34 million of student loan debt for the Morehouse College graduating class that year. For the pledge, he was named "Executive of the Year" at the 2019 PitchBook Private Equity Awards, which recognize individuals in the private equity industry who have made significant donations. He was also recognized as one of the 50 people "who defined 2019" on The Bloomberg 50 List.

In a recent video interview with Reuters, Smith claimed that companies that profited from the Transatlantic slave trade should consider making reparations to African Americans.

“I think that’s going to be a political decision that’s going to have to be made and decided upon. But I think corporations have to also think about, well, what is the right thing to do?” Smith said in a video interview.

Smith, the first African American to sign Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ ‘Giving Pledge’, has supported Black people extensively in his altruistic efforts.

Corporations “can bring their expertise and capital to repair the communities that they are directly associated with the industries in which they cover,” he added. “I think that has to be a very, a very thoughtful approach. But I think action needs to be taken.”

Smith is currently pushing US lawmakers to make more aid available to Black communities. The average small business has two months of working capital, whereas Black businesses have just two weeks, he explained.

The brutal murder of George Floyd in May in police custody in Minneapolis inspired protests in the United States and all over the world against racial inequality and police brutality. Floyd, an African American man, was killed after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for about nine minutes.

Robert Smith, Founder, Chairman and CEO, Vista Equity Partners, speaks at the Milken Institute's 21st Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. Image credit REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

“People are saying now, what can I do to make real systemic change and eliminate and eradicate racism in America?” pointed out Smith discussing the murder of Floyd. “That is an outgrowth of the protest and the realization that this racism is unjust and can’t stand.”

It has been estimated that 70% of the African American community does not have access to a bank branch, therefore many people are reliant on the financial institutions, specifically targeting minorities and economically disadvantaged areas.

“How do we restore, repair and regenerate the economic activity in these communities utilizing the force of the U.S. government and business and partnerships?” Smith said.

Smith added he has been focused on getting capital to community development financial institutions and minority depository institutions, that serve Black and economically disadvantaged communities.

Smith, who grew up during the late 1960s Civil Rights era and now runs a buyout firm that focuses on investing in software companies, said he sees a more broad-based coalition of support for equality for Black people all over the world, not just in the US.

“The allies weren’t as widespread,” when he was growing up, Smith clarified. “Employees of companies are also going to hold the leaders accountable to do something about it. We have a chance for systemic change."

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