Robert F. Smith, the private equity billionaire who is the nation’s richest Black person, said on Thursday that large corporations should use 2% of their annual net income for the next decade to empower minority communities. Smith made the comments after circulating a plan among CEOs that first calls on big banks to capitalize the financial institutions that service Black-owned businesses and minority-run entrepreneurial ventures.
In a keynote address he gave at the Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy, Smith, 57, said Black and minority communities have been abandoned by large banks and are starved of the capital needed to build businesses and local institutions. Smith argued that pumping in what he described as “reparative” capital and investing directly in financial architecture would be a fast way to advance economic justice for Black Americans.
“Nowhere is structural racism more apparent than in corporate America,” Smith said. “If you think about structural racism and access to capital, 70% of African American communities don’t even have a branch, bank of any type.”
In recent days, Smith, whose net worth is estimated to be $5 billion, has been sharing a concrete plan with the nation’s business leaders that argues that an investment equal to 2% of net income over the next decade would be a small step toward restoring equity and mobility in America. He has implied that America’s big corporations should feel compelled to support such a plan given the exclusionary practices of many industries over several decades. Smith made the case that the average American household charitably donates 2% of its income annually and is asking corporate America to do the same.
During the pandemic, Smith discovered the structural racism in banking firsthand as he tried to help Black businesses and banks that serve Black communities obtain Paycheck Protection Program loans. Smith found that Black-owned businesses faced numerous structural obstacles and as a result had trouble accessing the emergency financing being provided by the federal government through the banking sector.
The balance sheets of the nation’s 4,700 banks are made up of $20.3 trillion of assets, but only 21 of those banks are Black-owned or led, and they have total assets of just $5 billion, less than 1% of America’s commercial banking assets. Blacks make up 13% of the population of the United States.
In his talk on Thursday, Smith pointed out that the net income of the ten largest U.S. banks over the last ten years was $968 billion. He figured just 2% of that would amount to $19.4 billion, which could be used to fund the core Tier 1 capital of community development banks and minority depository institutions that primarily service Black communities. Smith was also open to the idea that the capital could be donated in a tax-advantaged way to a nonprofit entity that could provide the core bank capital.
Smith thinks the federal government could supercharge the effort by leveraging up the provided capital with the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility the Federal Reserve established to support consumer and business credit during the pandemic.
“The deprivation of capital is one of the areas that creates a major problem to the enablement of the African American community,” Smith told the more than 200 top philanthropists who attended the 9th annual Forbes philanthropy summit, which this year was held on Zoom. “The first thing to do is put capital into those branch banks to lend to these small businesses to actually create an opportunity set . . . drive it into these small businesses, which employs 60%-plus of African Americans.”
In a way, Smith is proposing a private sector solution to reparations, the idea that the federal government pay financial compensation to Black Americans who are the descendants of slaves. Smith believes Black communities have experienced systemic inequality and exclusion in corporate sectors beyond finance, including healthcare, telecommunications and technology. The net income of the biggest U.S. companies in just those sectors was $1.3 trillion combined over the last decade and 2% of those profits, or some $25 billion, could be used to do things like strengthen healthcare infrastructure in minority communities, equalize broadband access, fund STEM education at historically Black colleges and digitize minority small businesses.
Through his plan, Smith envisions the nation’s banking sector could, over the next ten years, provide billions of dollars of capital to Black-owned banks and community development banks, with some of the funds used to digitize these lenders. His plan calls for the telecom and tech sectors to provide money to help prepare 180,000 students at America’s historically Black colleges for the jobs of the future, and to digitize one million minority small businesses.
Smith, who has an engineering degree from Cornell University, is the founder of Vista Equity Partners, the nation’s biggest private equity firm specializing in software transactions. Part of Vista’s stunning success has been built on Smith’s detailed and secret playbook for running software companies, which has helped Vista achieve some of the private equity industry’s best financial returns.
Now, Smith believes his playbook for economic justice could not only ensure Black Americans have better access to opportunity, but also increase the nation’s economic activity by more than $1 trillion annually.
“I think that will show Americans there is hope, there is an opportunity for the American dream to now be revitalized,” Smith said on Thursday. “And frankly, to give us all confidence that we can actually make this a better country and a better place to live.”
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