I walked past the new Apple store yesterday. It’s beautiful, a rather old-fashioned front but glass everywhere looking out over the Chicago River. It was a pleasure to see since for months all we saw was this clunky barricade.
There was writing on the barricade, some long, inspiring quote that I can’t quite recall. Something about being young and reaching for the stars. It was black and the writing was white, but it was in one of those unfortunate cursive fonts that look cool but are a challenge to read.
Before the big reveal there was writing on the riverside store wall too. That was cream with black writing, we rise, or something about ideas. Again, I can’t remember. No shade to Apple – I just bought a new Mac – it was that font. Its appearance hid the message.
That font, or its flaws, stuck in my head. That’s not weird. I’m a writer. I notice fonts, and I had just read about Apple’s Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity Denise Young Smith apologizing to her team after some people took exception to comments she made at the recent One Young World Summit, in Bogota Columbia. It was a similar case of appearance hiding the message.
Here is the dialogue in question:
Aamna Mohdin: I wanted to touch on something that you said, Denise, that it’s not only just about numbers in Silicon Valley, but you’ve taken on a new role in Apple for inclusion and diversity, and a lot of that is going to be about the numbers. And I just kind of wanted to know whether black women is a priority for you in this new role?
Denise Young Smith: I’ll say this. So first of all, it’s a new role, but it’s not. I’ve been black and a woman for a long time…I have been doing this work, I have been playing this role for a very long time. I have been a first, I’ve been an only, when I was at the same conference that I just referenced, there were numbers and numbers of black women together — successful, professional, astonishing black women, and we were sharing stories and every single one of us could share the same stories about being in a room, in a meeting and someone would assume you were the assistant, the secretary, that you were not the manager, you were not the boss and that your staff person that was three levels below you was your boss. We all shared those stories.
Denise Young Smith: Aamna, you also asked me about my work at Apple, or in particular, who do I focus on? I focus on everyone. Diversity is the human experience. I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of color or the women or the LGBT or whatever because that means they’re carrying that around…because that means that we are carrying that around on our foreheads.
And I’ve often told people a story– there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation. The issue is representation and mix and bringing all the voices into the room that can contribute to the outcome of any situation. So I focus on everyone, but I also focus on allies and alliances because to DeRay’s point, there’s an incredible amount of power in those who have platforms or those who have the benefit of greater representation to tell the stories of those who do not. So whenever we can accomplish that, then that is a win for everyone. And I think that is something that people, that we all tend to… particularly those who protest things that we are fearful about, we can all win in this story, and so that’s what I try to focus on at Apple.
It’s a shame. I mean, I get it, she feels like she screwed up – or maybe she feels like she has to acknowledge that others feel that way – and mea culpa, etc. etc. But I don’t think a public apology was necessary. To clarify, the apology was actually an internal memo, obviously leaked.
For one thing, nobody’s perfect, and I doubt this woman’s heart is in the wrong place. For another, her words weren’t exactly incendiary. She was trying to make a point about the nuances of diversity, specifically, the importance of diversity of thought. She rightly pulled white men into the conversation because they need to be there, and they’re often erroneously labeled as not diverse. Maybe she wasn’t as eloquent as she could have been, but she didn’t say anything inaccurate, it was just kind of, well, weak.
And that bit about her frustration with minorities being tagged with the term diversity? Again, not the most eloquent way to make a point because it’s only partially true. Diversity should be the human experience, but it isn’t. That’s why we have problems. Everyone doesn’t need the same level of focus. Granted she can’t play favorites. I don’t want her to. That nixes the entire point of inclusion.
But what’s missing is the urgency to bring in those groups who are not currently well represented in Apple’s workforce, and how to root out why they weren’t included in the first place. There is no mention of the systemic issues that led to Apple’s current state, no plans to improve things. It’s surface, very “I’m towing the company line.”
These comments seem to suggest Smith is scared to say the wrong thing or to cause offense, which she did. But who’s at fault? If I’m right, Apple is as much to blame as Smith.
Her remarks scream whitewash, and I say that not in a racial way, but in a this-has-been-diluted-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life-so-as-not-to-cause-offense way. I’m speculating, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that instead of discussing programs and strategic talent management changes her meetings with senior leaders are spent being warned about the seriousness of presenting the right image.
Appearance and image can’t be the focus if an organization is sincere about strategic diversity management. Especially for a tech company like Apple, which has admitted publicly that it needs a lot of work in this area. Why isn’t Smith talking about specific programs? Plans to seed the talent pipelines from more diverse groups? Or, perhaps foundational STEM programs to build those pipelines from the beginning through early education.
Granted, she’s only been in this job since May; there will be a learning curve. But with this kind of scrutiny and the parsing and nitpicking that go on with any diversity- or inclusion-related idea, she doesn’t have any real margin for error.
She may need media training, for one thing – Did she get those questions before the event? She has to prepare so that she relays only the information she wants to, continuously bringing her data and points around to the narrative she wants to create; at least, that’s how I’d do it. – and while she was formerly the company’s VP of HR and has been with Apple for some time, coming from an HR background doesn’t automatically mean you’re great at diversity work. I’d go so far as to say that Apple needs specialized help. Big guns to help Smith affect change.
She seems to have some good wins under her belt. One TechCrunch article said that she launched Apple’s partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College fund, supporting students who attend HBCUs to help feed the company’s talent pipelines from these schools.
But in her remarks in Bogota she chose to highlight diversity of thought? I smell a rat. She’s not exactly leading from a position of strength.
That emphasis immediately prompted more questions for me. What is her budget? What plans, even preliminary ones, has she put in place to work on Apple’s dismal diversity-related workforce numbers? What plans does she have to address bias in talent management processes and in leadership? What training will she create and offer? What leadership development programs are in the hopper? What about sponsorship, mentoring, high potential development for underrepresented groups?
It might have helped if she shared a clear and concise picture of Apple’s vision for diversity and inclusion, even if it sounded like she pulled it off a break room wall. It’s a solid foundation on which to build. But maybe that’s been done to death? Again, I’m not sure, but I’d wager it bears repeating, if that vision exists.
I don’t know, this could just be a bad day. Maybe they’ll get her some media training, or she’ll tighten up in the wake of this snafu, and rock it going forward. I certainly hope so. But my gut says she’s working from a stacked deck.
Corporate diversity officers have a big job. They have to advance the strategic diversity management plan and prove their work has an impact on the bottom line, but they can never lose sight of the global brand, mission, values and again, the bottom line.
Plus, too often they have to contend with existing bad feelings as many inherit a poo-ey mess along with their brand new titles, and company cultures that haven’t the first clue how to do or even embrace diversity. These cultures may not even want to. But Smith isn’t talking about any of that, and that is where the rubber meets the road.
Her milque toast remarks tweaked some serious nerves. I read one response, “Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid: Why Apple’s New Approach to Diversity and Inclusion is Deeply Problematic,” by Vivianne Castillo that raised both of my brows. It pointed out in the most pleasing linear fashion exactly what was wrong with Smith’s responses.
But at the end of the day, Apple won’t be the one to suffer for her remarks. The company’s brand is currently strong enough that it won’t take a big hit, but Smith will. And if she does, diversity and inclusion take a hit as well, as do diversity executives.
She has to be willing to have tough conversations and say unpopular things. Everyone won’t like everything she has to say, but she can’t afford to appear weak. Basically, her font can’t be hard to read. Her message cannot be diluted. Not when she’s attached to such a high profile company.
Likewise, companies can’t profess to care and want change a la strategic diverse management and not support and equip their diversity leaders’ efforts to create it. This means you, Apple. Smith is going to have to get herself some actionable plans and wins fast, or she may find herself hung out to dry.