Apple serves up social conscience with its shiny gadgets

By Seth Feigerman  – June 8, 2015  interview posted to Mashable.com

On the eve of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, CEO Tim Cook sat down with Mashable for an extensive conversation — not about flashy gadgets and vanity sales statistics, as one might expect in the lead-up to one of Apple’s major media events for the year, but about the need for greater diversity in the technology industry.

“It’s the future of our company,” Cook said in the interview, when asked about Apple’s attempts to improve diversity within the company. “I think the most diverse group will produce the best product. I firmly believe that.”

Talking about diversity instead of products ahead of a developer conference? File this under the long list of things Steve Jobs would probably never have done.

Cook’s interest in diversity, in climate change, in gay rights, in a long list of social issues that most CEOs rarely touch, shows that the Apple CEO is as interested in the company’s moral standing as in its innovation

Since Cook took over as CEO following Jobs’ death in 2011, he has differentiated himself from his famous predecessor by staking out moral ground on issues ranging from diversity to renewable energy to philanthropy.

In the process, he has arguably helped polish and modernize the Apple brand. Indeed, he may just prove that Apple’s most powerful new product of the Tim Cook era may be Tim Cook himself.

Where is the business world’s North Star?

In speeches and interviews during the last couple years, Cook has spoken about his experience growing up in rural Alabama at a time when segregation was still sanctioned. He quotes Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, citing their work for social justice. At Apple, he said in one commencement speech this year, he found a powerful platform to exert change.

His inspiration, he said, was Jobs.

“I always figured that work was work. Values had their place. And yes there were things that I wanted to change about the world, but I thought I would have to do that in my own time, not in the office,” Cook recalled during a speech at George Washington University. “Steve didn’t see it that way. He was an idealist.”

Jobs’ idealism, if one can call it that, appeared to be focused on the power of technology and innovation. He was not particularly outspoken on social issues, nor was he an active philanthropist in public.

Cook, in contrast, appears to be pushing Apple’s towards an image of charity and compassion — through speeches, yes, but also by allowing Apple to match employees’ charitable donations, issue transparency reports on diversity and encourage employees to march for social issues like gay rights. He recently revealed plans to give away all of his Apple fortune.

“Steve would never have taken this kind of vocal position. It was just not in his nature,” says Tim Bajarin, an Apple analyst who covered Jobs and the company for 35 years. “Steve was so focused on technology and changing the world through technology, whereas with Tim, I think he sees his role in technology as one where you can actually exact specific change.”

Cook has rallied with Apple employees for gay pride and emerged as a prominent face in the LGBT community when he proudly declared himself to be a gay man last October — making him the first Fortune 500 CEO to do so. The CEO has put more emphasis on renewable energy and made headlines for telling a shareholder to get out of Apple stock after suggesting the company forfeit environmental efforts.

In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, Cook laid out his personal values with conviction: “Treating people with dignity. Treating people the same. That everyone deserves a basic level of human rights regardless of their color, regardless of their religion, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their gender. That everyone deserves respect. I’ll fight for it until my toes point up.”