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Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered the commencement speech to graduating students of George Washington University on Sunday morning and spoke about the importance of values and justice in the workplace.
“Before I begin today, they asked me to make a standard announcement about silencing your phones. Those of you with an iPhone, just place it in silent mode. If you don’t have an iPhone, please pass it to the center aisle,” Cook joked as he took the podium. “Apple has a world-class recycling program.”
Cook went on to comment on the “powerful pull” that Washington, D.C., had on American society, saying, “It was here that Dr. Martin Luther King challenged Americans to make real the promises of democracy — to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It was here that President Ronald Reagan called on us to believe in ourselves and believe in our capacity to perform great deeds.”
He transitioned into a story about his first visit to the capitol during the summer of 1977 as a 16-year-old junior in high school who had grown up in Alabama. Cook had won an essay contest and was given the opportunity to visit Washington with hundreds of other kids. But they first made a stop in Montgomery, where he met then-Governor George C. Wallace.
“Meeting my governor was not an honor for me,” Cook said, describing Wallace as someone who “embraced the evils of segregation.” He noted that his heroes in life were Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, both of whom had spent their lives fighting against the things that Wallace had stood for.
“I shook his hand as we were expected to do, but shaking his hand felt like a betrayal of my own beliefs,” he said. “It felt wrong, like I was selling a piece of my soul.”
After leaving Montgomery, Cook arrived in Washington, where he then got to meet President Jimmy Carter. He told the audience that though both men were from the same political party, had lived in the South and were politicians of high power, Wallace and Carter held completely different values.
“Carter was kind and compassionate. He held the most powerful job in the world, but he had not sacrificed any of his humanity,” Cook said.
Comparing the two, he continued on about the importance of staying true to one’s values, “I had to figure out for myself what was right and true. It was a search. It was a process. … It’s about finding your values and committing to live by them. You have to find your north star, and that means choices. Some are easy, some are hard and some will make you question everything.”
Twenty years after his visit to Washington, Cook recalled that he met someone who made him do that very thing — Steve Jobs. He described Jobs as someone who had “ended all of my assumptions in the very best way.”
Cook continued, “His vision for Apple was a company that turned powerful technology into tools that were easy to use — tools that would help people realize their dreams and change the world for the better. … I had studied to be an engineer and earned an M.B.A. I was trained to be pragmatic, a problem-solver. Now, I found myself sitting before and listening to this very animated 40-something guy with visions of changing the world. It was not what I had expected.”
The Apple CEO went on to tell students that working with Jobs changed his view of what “work” truly meant. “I always figured that work was work. Values had their place, and yes, there were things I wanted to change about the world, but I thought I had to do that in my own time — not in the office. Steve didn’t see it that way,” he said. “He was an idealist, and in that way, he reminded me of how I felt as a teenager. In that first meeting, he convinced me that if we worked hard and made great products, we, too, could help change the world. And to my surprise, I was hooked. I took the job and changed my life. It’s been 17 years, and I have never once looked back.”
Cook noted that Apple’s main purpose is to improve the lives of others. “Our products do amazing things, and just as Steve envisioned, they empower people all over the world. People who are blind and need information read to them because they can’t see the screen. People for whom technology is a lifeline because they’re isolated by distance or disability. People who witness injustice and want to expose it, and now they can because they have a camera in their pocket all the time,” he said to rousing cheers.
Cook added, “We believe that a company that has values and acts on them can really change the world, and an individual can, too. That can be you. That must be you. … Your challenge is to find work that pays the rent, puts food on the table and lets you do what it right and good and just.”
Before leaving the podium, Cook made sure to take out his iPhone and snap a photo of all of the graduating students seated in the audience. He concluded, “This is the best view in the world.”
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