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Tim Cook is using his power for racial justice

While some tech giants face boycotts for their failures to combat hate speech, the Apple CEO has proven innovation can be an ally to racial justice.

Tim Cook - Credit: Noam Galai / Getty Images

This year, Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference was unlike any other the company had held before. Instead of charging US$1,599 for a ticket, the event was open to the public.

Instead of taking place in a convention centre packed with software developers, the entire conference was held online. Instead of the peppiness that usually accompanies the unveiling of brand-new Apple products, two clouds loomed solemnly over the event – the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide protests against police brutality and racism.

CEO Tim Cook wasted no time before broaching the subjects.

“To start, I want to address the topic of racism, inequality and injustice and to recognise the pain being felt throughout our nation, especially in our Black and Brown communities, after the senseless killing of George Floyd,” Cook said in the opening of his keynote address, referring to the Black man whose killing by Minneapolis police less than a month earlier triggered a wave of protests demanding racial justice around the world.

“This country was founded on the principles of freedom and equality for all. For too many people and for too long, we haven’t lived up to those ideals. We’re inspired and moved by the passionate people around our nation and around the world who have stood up to demand change.

“We must all aim far higher to build a future that lives up to our ideals. This means taking action.”

It was a surprising dose of candour and welcome gesture of solidarity from a major tech CEO, especially in the wake of heavy criticism heaped on Facebook and Twitter for their failures to rid their platforms of hate speech and disinformation.

Facebook, for its part, suffered a US$60 billion drop in its market value after major advertisers announced a month-long boycott of the social media giant for that reason.

“We must all aim far higher to build a future that lives up to our ideals. This means taking action.” – Tim Cook

Apple, on the other hand, has positioned itself as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, pledging US$100 million to a new racial equity and justice initiative, which Cook said would “challenge systemic barriers that limit opportunity for communities of colour in the critical areas of education, economic equality and criminal justice”.

Cook also announced a new entrepreneur camp for Black developers to “foster the brightest lights and best ideas”. “At Apple, our mission has always been to make the world a better place, and we’re committed to being a force for change,” he said.

Dignity and respect

For Cook, the fight for social and racial justice is personal. The long-time Apple executive and CEO since 2011 grew up in segregated Alabama, where he frequently saw businesses marked “Whites Only”.

He says he remembers “fundamentally not understanding how people could convince themselves that this was right”. Six years ago, he revealed another motivation when he became the first openly gay Fortune 500 CEO.

Despite his predisposition towards privacy, he reasons, “It became clear to me that there were lots of kids out there that were not being treated well, including in their own families, and that kids need someone to say, ‘Oh, they did OK in life and they’re gay, so it must not be a life sentence.’

And when I was getting these notes, it would tug on my heart even more, and it got to the point where I thought, ‘I’m making the wrong call by trying to do something that is comfortable for me, which is to stay private.’ I needed to do something for the greater good.”

Cook traces many of the world’s problems to a lack of equality – neighbourhoods with poor public education, people being ostracised at work because of their religion or their sexual orientation.

“I think if, one day, you could wave a wand and everybody in the world would treat each other with dignity and respect, there would be many, many problems that would go away,” he says.

Cook’s challenges and breakthroughs

Cook’s decision to devote time and resources to these social movements is all the more impressive given they are occurring against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, whose resurgence in the US and China has had a significant impact on Apple.

Months of factory lockdowns have depleted the company’s inventory, while store closures have caused sales to fall US$5 billion below initial projections.

The stakes are especially high because, as America’s most profitable company, Apple’s performance is interpreted as a weathervane for the performance of the entire US stock market.

However, the pressure does not faze Cook, who, even during the pandemic, remains committed to push for innovation, creativity and improved user experience.

“People are relying on our products more than ever to remain connected to family and friends, to do their work, to express their creativity, to be entertained, as well as to entertain others,” Cook points out.

“It’s always struck me as bizarre that there’s a fixation on how many units are sold in a 90-day period. We’re making decisions that are multi-year kind of decisions, so we try to be very clear that we do not run the company for people that want to make a quick buck. We run Apple for the long-term.”

This mentality was reflected clearly in the roster of Apple products unveiled at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, many of which are bundled into iOS 14 – the newest operating system for the iPhone.

“Throughout history, great challenges have been met with great creativity and important breakthroughs.” – Tim Cook

iOS 14 will include new ways to organise the home screen, a new real-time translation app, and a feature within Apple Maps to highlight the most environmentally friendly route by which to travel from place to place.

The App Clips feature will allow users to access apps without downloading them, and a newly designed Siri will take up less screen space. Perhaps most importantly to the average user, the new Picture in Picture feature will allow videos to continue playing even as the user navigates between apps and the home screen.

“Today, the world is counting on all of us, and on the products and experiences that we create, to move forward,” Cook says. “Because throughout history, great challenges have been met with great creativity and important breakthroughs.”

Turning left when others turn right

Apple’s domination of the consumer market under Cook’s leadership follows the path set out for him by his predecessor and the company’s founder, the late Steve Jobs. Cook recalls their first meeting in 1998, when Jobs offered him the role of Senior Vice President for Worldwide Operations.

Although Cook was just months into a new job as Vice President for Corporate Materials at Compaq, which was the world’s foremost producer of PCs at the time, he knew within minutes that he wanted to work at Apple.

“There was a sparkle in his eye that I’d never seen in a CEO before, and he was sort of turning left when everyone else was turning right,” Cook says. “Almost on everything that he talked about, he was doing something extraordinarily different than conventional wisdom.

“Many people were abandoning the consumer market because it was a bloodbath. Steve was doing the exact opposite; he was doubling down on the consumer at a time when the conventional wisdom said, ‘Go put your money in storage and servers.’ I thought it was brilliant.”

Jobs ran Apple without the bureaucracy Cook was accustomed to.

“You could kind of talk to Steve about something very big, and if it resonated with him, he would just say OK, and you could do it,” Cook recalls. “I realised that if I couldn’t get something done, I could just go to the nearest mirror and look at it, and that was the reason.”

During his decade as CEO, Cook has continued seeking input and guidance from every possible source, including users of Apple products.

“One of the best moments of my day is to go through my emails from users,” he says. “I get so many each week from people that found out they have a heart problem from their Apple Watch – it’s alerting you if you’ve been sitting and your heart rate has climbed to a level that doesn’t make sense relative to the activity you’ve been doing.

“So many people have written and said, ‘The watch alerted me to a problem, I took action and went to the cardiologist, and he told me that if I had not gone there, I wouldn’t be alive.’”

A great citizen

Being a captain of American industry also places Cook in regular contact with President Donald Trump. Their interactions are closely watched by political analysts who presume that this mild-mannered, gay CEO who has spoken up in support of the Black Lives Matter movement would share little common ground with the boisterous, womanising champion of white America.

Cook, however, says the unlikely pair have found ways to work together.

“There are differences, there’s no doubt about that. But you look for intersections, and I care a lot about creating jobs, and I think the president does as well. I care a lot about training the workforce for the future, and the administration is focused on this as well,” Cook says.

“As technology speeds over and over again, and jobs are disrupted and jobs are created, we have to make sure our education is preparing people for the disruption and the creation.

“I think if we do that, we can flourish in this environment. But if we don’t, we leave a lot of people behind. And that should be unacceptable for all of us.”

By confining his contributions to the president to nonpartisan issues like these, Cook hopes to influence policy in ways that benefit the country as a whole without getting political.

“From my perspective, engagement is always best, because just simply standing on the sideline and yelling doesn’t accomplish anything but polarisation,” Cook says.

“I want to suit up and play a role. If I disagree on something, I want to try to influence it. If I agree on something, I want to try to amplify and figure out a way that I can help in some way and be a great citizen of the country.”

Feature image: Noam Galai / Getty Images

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