Denise Young Smith, a 20 year Apple veteran, is departing her job as the first Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion after just six months. Smith has announced she will be accepting a position as executive in residence at Cornell Tech in January.
Smith’s departure was planned but comes on the heels of a controversial comment made in October. Smith was speaking on a diversity and racial injustice panel at the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia. She was asked by Quartz’s moderator Aamna Mohdin if she would focus on any specific group in her diversity efforts. Her reply was not well received. Smith said she wouldn’t single out any one demographic for advancement. Her comment, transcribed by TechCrunch is as follows;
“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.”
Silicon Valley has a serious diversity problem and Apple is not immune. Apple’s workforce numbers show that only 9 percent of Apple’s workforce is African-American, 12 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian and 56 percent white. It’s not a pretty picture when you consider that most non-white employees are found in Apple’s retail stores. Smith was expected to at least make progress on the issue but not a lot has changed. However, she was working on developing Apple’s diversity scholarship program.
Realizing she had fumbled the issue Smith emailed her team following the comments;
I have always been proud to work for Apple in large part because of our steadfast commitment to creating an inclusive culture. We are also committed to having the most diverse workforce and our work in this area has never been more important. In fact, I have dedicated my twenty years at Apple to fostering and promoting opportunity and access for women, people of color and the underserved and unheard.
Last week, while attending a summit in Bogota, I made some comments as part of a conversation on the many factors that contribute to diversity and inclusion.
I regret the choice of words I used to make this point. I understand why some people took offense. My comments were not representative of how I think about diversity or how Apple sees it. For that, I’m sorry.
More importantly, I want to assure you Apple’s view and our dedication to diversity has not changed.
Understanding that diversity includes women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and all underrepresented minorities is at the heart of our work to create an environment that is inclusive of everyone.
Our commitment at Apple to increasing racial and gender diversity is as strong as it’s ever been. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, but there is much work to be done. I’m continually reminded of the importance of talking about these issues and learning from each other.
Breaking It Down
This was a sad day for the idea of diversity in Silicon Valley. People of color thought Apple had appointed a warrior to fight the diversity fight. Perhaps they did. Perhaps Smith misspoke. People do that. But her statement reveals how severe the diversity problem is in Silicon Valley boardrooms. A boardroom that she was apart of. Did she feel not focusing on a single group was an effective strategy? Again, perhaps. But diversity is about bringing in different colors of skin as well as ideas. Its about inclusion. I believe her when she said she believes in that. What she failed to realize is that ‘blue eyed blond white men” are not what her job asked her to bring in. This is just not what diversity advocates want to hear from a person in her position. Wrong choice of words Ms. Smith but lets move on. Smith is a women. A black women. A successful black women. A successful black woman at the world’s most successful company. She was in a position to change things, to make difference, To find other women and minorities who are as capable as her and look like her. I’m not going to label her a failure. But she clearly stumbled.