Tim Cook: The Power of Diversity
In a rare interview, Apple CEO Tim Cook sat down with People en Español editor-in-chief Armando Correa to discuss his historic coming out and sends a message to LGBTQ+ teenagers and their parents.
Six years ago, Tim Cook, who took the reins at Apple after the death of its founder, Steve Jobs, called renowned CNN anchor Anderson Cooper to set up a meeting with him. Cook was about to make a decision that would reverberate around the world and he wanted Cooper's advice. “My style is when I'm doing something complex that I've never done before, I always try to make a list of those people who have come before and approach this point,” he shares.
What he was doing was much more complex. Cook, 59, had decided to publish a column where he would share with the world that he was gay, making him the first, and until then only, leader of a Fortune 500 company to come out of the closet. Five years later, speaking slowly and with a slight smile, he says: “I have not regretted it for one minute. Not at all.”
On the fourth floor of the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA — a futuristic ring in the shape of a spaceship surrounded by mountains and trees that was dreamt up by Jobs and designed by lauded architect Norman Foster — Cook greeted me with a strong handshake.
“How's the family, your kids?” he asked. We had met a year earlier when Apple invited me to present my first novel, The German Girl, during Hispanic Heritage Month and speak about my career.
Days before our second meeting, Cook had been in the headlines again after signing a petition for the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of DREAMers, young immigrants protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood (DACA) program. Some 443 Apple employees who reside in 36 states are DREAMers, up from 250 just two years ago. “We did not hire them out of kindness or charity,” Apple said in the filing. “We did it because DREAMers embody Apple's innovation strategy.”
This is the first time Cook has granted an interview to a Spanish-language outlet in the U.S.
Being such a private person, why did you decide to publish a personal column about your sexual orientation?
What was driving me was [that] I was getting notes from kids who were struggling with their sexual orientation. They were depressed. Some said [they] had suicidal thoughts. Some had been banished by their own parents and family. It weighed on me in terms of what I could do. Obviously I couldn't talk to each one individually that reached out, but you always know if you have people reaching out to you that there's many more that don't, that are just out there wondering whether they have a future or not, wondering whether life gets better … From there I really decided. There's been a lot of people that came before me that made it possible for me to sit here today, and I needed to do something to help those people that were in a younger generation. It probably took a year between getting the words exactly like I wanted and picking the right time for the company, because I didn't want it to be a distraction and so forth. I have not regretted it for one minute. Not at all.
Let's go back five years. What was your biggest fear about publishing that column?
I don't know that I really had a fear. What I thought about or what I considered was, I thought about the company. Not so much whether I would have support in the company because we have a very open employee base. I didn't worry about that. But outside of Apple, yes, because the world is still not friendly to gay or trans people in many countries but also within our country. I mean you look at it … there's still half the states or so where you can be fired for being gay or trans.
What was the board of directors' answer?
I said, “Look, if I want to do this, this is how I'm going to do this. This is how I want to do it, but if any of you are against this, then I'll pull back.” I didn't anticipate they would be, but I wanted to bring them along for the ride, and they unanimously supported it.
Were you surprised?
That they supported it? No, I anticipated that they would. I honestly never even thought that they would not. You just think about Apple. Apple was giving partner benefits before almost anybody. The company has a history of being open and diverse. [Before I wrote the column,] I reached out to Anderson Cooper because I was looking for examples of people who had come out in a way that I thought would be similar to my kind of thinking, and he was one of the people I had identified. I set up a meeting with him, and he didn't know what it was about. We had never met before. It was an interesting discussion to say the least. I talked to him several times that year to get his advice on different things, and I have a friendship with him now because of that.
Was he shocked at that moment?
I can't say he was in shock, but I'm certain that he didn't anticipate this. When I'm doing something complex that I've never done before, I try to make a list of people who have come before … and he was the first one on the list. I called him up, and I was fortunate enough that he would take the meeting. He was very open about it.
I remember when I read your column, one of the sentences that most surprised me was: “I'm proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”
Yes, I strongly believe that. I think there's many meanings behind this. One is, it was his decision, not mine. Two, at least for me, I can only speak for myself, it gives me a level of empathy that I think is probably much higher than average because being gay or trans, you're a minority. And I think when you're a majority, even though intellectually you can understand what it means to be in a minority, it's an intellectual thing. It's not intellectual for me to be in a minority. I'm not saying that I understand the trials and tribulations of every minority group, because I don't. But I do understand for one of the groups. And to the degree that it helps give you a lens on how other people may feel, I think that's a gift in and of itself.
Educating children about their sexuality is important, but what's the message you want to get across to parents? Because everything starts at home.
Some parents — I know because they've reached out to me — some parents struggle … they think their child's potential is less because they're gay. They think they can't achieve. They think they'll be bullied. They think that it's almost a life sentence to not have as good a life, to not have a happy life. My message to them is that it doesn't have to be like that. It starts with them because if they treat their child with respect and dignity, just like we treat each other, then that child can do anything they want, including [being] the CEO of Apple, or to be the president or whatever they want. Being gay is not a limitation. It's a feature.
Speaking of minorities, Apple has just filed a petition in favor of DREAMers that states, “Diversity is important for creativity.” How can your perspective change the national conversation about these young immigrants?
Well, it's true. We know that we create better products by being more diverse. We know the best products are created by the most diverse teams because products are created for everyone. So you want people with a different lens on the world and on different subjects to get together to create. And if you could have these ideas in a collaborative environment, there's no limit to what you can create. When I talk to folks that are in the United States in the DACA program, what I see is a level of grit, a level of determination, a level of excitement to be in America to achieve something and to go beyond perhaps where their parents did. I see enormous dedication and [a] very diligent work ethic, which I've always deeply admired. It was the way I was brought up as well. That's what I see, and I think it's a travesty that we're allowing, as a society, this cloud to hang over their heads for any period of time, but even more so for the period of time we have. Sometimes people get confused and think of it as a numbers thing. But these are people. These are people with real stories behind them. And they're every bit as American as I am. When I speak to them, I'm speaking to Americans from my point of view. They're American in every respect except they don't have the paper. So let's give them the paper and do the right thing. I became worried that we're only a court ruling away from the wrong decision. So that's the motivation of really putting our company and personal name out there to push. We've been pushing as you probably know for quite some time on this. This is the last mile, and we must be successful here.
We've touched on helping DREAMers and advising young people who are struggling to come out. What about the environment?
We set what some people thought was a crazy goal a few years ago that we were going to run Apple on 100 percent renewable energy. We achieved that two years ago, and we've been running the company on 100 percent renewable energy. We decided to set the next crazy objective to do the same for our supply chain, and by next year we'll have six gigawatts of renewable energy in our supply chain. That's solar, it's wind, a little bit of hydro in there, primarily solar and wind. We've also done some things like there's a lot of recycled parts in here [he points to an iPhone 11], a lot of recycled material in here. We have parts in here where they require mining. We found a way to recycle that, we're the first company to do that. We've gone out with Conservation International and they essentially bought land and stripped the land rights, the development rights off of it so it becomes a renewable forest. So if we need any paper, we're sourcing it from those forests, the managed forests. Our ultimate objective is not to take anything from the Earth, or trees or anything, but use all recycled material to build our products. We're certainly not there yet, but it's our next crazy objective along the line. And I think we can do it.
Finishing up, what is your message to kids that want to be out?
Want to be out? Well, it's that life gets better, that you can have a great life filled with joy. Gay is not a limitation. It's a characteristic that I hope they view, like I do, that it's God's greatest gift. That's what I hope: to get that message out there to all the young kids struggling with their identity who aren't certain that they're resilient enough or good enough, or [they] are made to feel inferior in some way, or worse, are ostracized or whatever. Life doesn't need to be like this. And to people that are wondering how they should treat people that are gay, the simple message is be kind. Treat each other with kindness and dignity and respect. And if you do that, you don't have to worry about walking on eggshells. We're like everybody else. We just like to be treated with dignity and respect.
Armando Correa is a Cuban author and the editor-in-chief of People en Español. His novels The German Girl and The Daughter's Tale are international bestsellers. He lives with his partner and three children in Manhattan.