Gilbert, fellow Forbes-lister announce internship program

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Dan Gilbert and Robert Smith participate in 'Detroit Youth Rising,' an intimate conversation at the Madison Building in Detroit on Jan. 16, 2019.

The wealthiest landlord in Detroit welcomed the wealthiest African-American in the United States to the city Wednesday evening to talk about entrepreneurship, "on-ramps" and a nationwide internship program that will extend an extra-large hand to southeast Michigan.

Dan Gilbert, No. 274 on the Forbes list of the world's richest people at $6.3 billion, nodded approvingly as Robert F. Smith, No. 480 with $4.4 billion, told a packed auditorium at the Madison Building downtown that "our biggest challenge is talent."

"Where are you going to find them?" asked Smith, 56, a Denver native who lives in Austin, Texas. "Often, the best place is your backyard. Now, how are you going to find them?"

One place, he suggested, is internX, which launched Tuesday at and had a reported 4,160 candidates and 73 companies signed up within 28 hours.

Developed by Smith's Fund II Foundation, the program is designed to connect companies with collegians from historically underrepresented communities. Its particular emphases are STEM-related fields and African-American students.

"Detroit matters to us," said foundation president Linda Wilson. "We want to reach out to Detroit. We've given out hundreds of scholarships, and only six recipients are from Detroit."

Wilson spoke after Gilbert moderated a chat with Smith before an audience made up largely of Detroit high-schoolers who might soon become interns.

Smith spoke frequently of providing on-ramps to opportunity for kids with ability, but no idea what to do with it.

His parents, he said, were teachers with doctorate degrees, and when he decided as a high school junior to pursue a college-level internship with Bell Labs, he had the wherewithal to call the personnel director every day for two weeks — and then every Monday for five months.

But with many children from modest means, Gilbert noted, "They don't know what they don't know." The college and corporate realms are foreign places.

Gilbert, 57, said his companies hire 1,500 interns every summer. Smith said the goal of internX is to place 10,000 interns by 2020, providing them with tools and services to help them stand out in interviews and on the job.

"Become an expert in your craft," Smith advised the students on hand. For now, he said, that craft is getting into the best colleges in their field and learning enough to land the best internships.

Smith graduated from Cornell University, became a patent-holding chemical engineer, earned an MBA from Columbia and went to work for Goldman Sachs.

After six years there in technology investment banking, Smith and partner Brian Sheth founded Vista Equity Partners in 2000. Vista ranks as the world's fourth-largest enterprise software firm, according to PC Magazine, with more than 50 companies and 65,000 employees.

His Fund II Foundation, created in 2014, makes grants primarily in five areas: African-American experience, human rights, outdoor education, music education and sustaining such "uniquely American values" as entrepreneurship, empowerment and innovation.

Personally or through the foundation, Smith's noteworthy gifts include $50 million to Cornell to support black and female students at the College of Engineering and create a fellowship program; $40 million, in increments, to the United Negro College Fund; $39 million to the National Park Foundation; and $20 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn