Founder of Vista Equity Partners, Robert F. Smith, is one of the country's most prominent black businessmen. On June 1, he published a letter to Vista's staff in the New York Times about the death of George Floyd, the civil unrest, and how he feels amidst it all.
In the memo titled 'A Heartbreaking and Painful Week,' Smith shared his thoughts on Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after being handcuffed while a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 10 minutes. Captured on video, Mr. Floyd is heard repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe."
"When I see the face of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or Christian Cooper, I see myself as a young man; I see the faces of my children; and I am reminded of the many times in my life when I have been judged not by my character, but by my skin color. I am not alone," Smith writes. "I have heard from many of you that you have been deeply moved by these events, and I did not want them to pass without sharing a few thoughts with you."
Smith continues by sharing the painful childhood memory of mourning the death of his uncle, who was shot dead by a white gas station attendant. "I was quite confused by this as my uncle, who had just received his master's degree and was recently married, was quite excited about having landed a job with the State of Colorado inspecting various facilities across the state. Apparently, this gas station attendant couldn't imagine why an African American would have a state gas card and felt the appropriate action was to shoot and kill him. This was almost 50 years ago, and the pain still lingers."
Smith continues by saying that even though the country is "better, stronger, more inclusive" than it has ever been, in other ways "progress still feels so elusive."
"It's natural to feel helpless in light of the events we're seeing in the news. Each of us has to choose to overcome. Each of us can embrace the words that Dr. King spoke in a sermon in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957. He said, 'We must discover the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world.'"
Smith is just one of many black executives speaking out amidst the civil unrest and calling for change. Others include Citigroup Chief Financial Officer Mark Mason; Thasunda Brown Duckett, JPMorgan Chase's CEO of consumer banking; and Oprah Winfrey.