This post has been updated.
Apple executive Denise Young Smith — just named as executive-in-residence at Cornell Tech — will be stepping down from her role at Apple at the end of this year, the company announced Friday.
Young Smith has been at Apple since 1997, serving in a variety of HR roles. She was Apple’s first Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook. However, following Friday’s announcement, Young Smith will have only held that position for six months.
She is scheduled to assume her position at Cornell Tech in January 2018, the University on Nov. 7 — 10 days prior to the news of her stepping down at Apple.
In a University press release announcing her position at Cornell, Dan Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, commended Young Smith for being “an extremely accomplished executive, and one of the tech industry’s leading voices on inclusion and diversity.”
Young Smith recently came under fire for a statement she made last month about diversity when she said that a room of “12 white blue-eyed blonde men” could be considered diverse.
At the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia last month, Young Smith, who is black, was criticized for her statement, some saying that it implied that she would rather focus on fostering diversity in thought than on specific initiatives to include traditionally underrepresented minorities.
“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,” she said.
“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,” she continued.
According to Apple’s Diversity Report, which provides data up to July 2017, Apple is 32 percent female globally and 54 percent white nationally. Critics said that Young Smith’s statement could justify Apple’s overwhelmingly white male composition.
Young Smith later apologized in an email to her team, saying that she regretted her choice of words.
“My comments were not representative of how I think about diversity or how Apple sees it. For that, I’m sorry,” she wrote. “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.”
On Friday, TechCrunch first reported that Young Smith will be leaving Apple at the end of the year. The article said Young Smith might have been planning to leave Apple before making the controversial statements. An unnamed source said that she had been talking with Tim Cook about the next phase of her career and life for about a year and that Apple had already been looking for her successor for a few months.
Cornell Tech media relations confirmed to The Sun that Cornell had been working with Young Smith for months in planning for her role at Cornell Tech, which was scheduled to begin in January consistent with her long-planned departure from Apple.
At Cornell Tech, Young Smith’s role will be to “work with students to build an early career-stage awareness of inclusive leadership and diverse talent,” according to the University release.
Young Smith will be the second executive-in-residence at Cornell Tech after Judith Spitz, a former Verizon CIO, first held the position. Spitz joined Cornell Tech in 2016 and created the Women in Technology Entrepreneurship in New York program, of which she later became the full-time program director.
“We’re thrilled to have Denise on board to expand Cornell Tech’s commitment to a more diverse pipeline of tech talent,” Spitz said in the University press release. “Creating the WiTNY program was an incredible start, and building a framework for educating the next-gen workforce about inclusive leadership in technology is crucial.”
Spitz told The Sun that there is “no one formula” for the roles and responsibilities of an executive-in-residence. At its foundation, Spitz said the executive-in-residence position requires a “trio of alignment” — the combination of a corporation, academic institution and individual sharing a common passion. The executive-in-residence essentially brings their executive experience and insights to an academic environment.
“Especially at a place like Cornell Tech that is all about the transparency between industry and academia, to actually have senior executives coming and immersing themselves in the culture here … is a positive all the way around,” she said.
In her case, Spitz said she was particularly passionate about encouraging women to enter and rise to leadership positions in the tech industry. She had a particular program in mind that she wanted to implement, but she said that in other cases the executive-in-residence comes in with a more general area of focus and a passion and the exact programmatic approach is defined later.
Pragmatically, Spitz said being an executive-in-residence means working full-time at the academic institution while still getting paid in total or in part by the company. This was Spitz’s personal experience, which she said she thought was fairly typically.
While still working at Verizon, Spitz spent some time preparing and planning for the transition. After that, she held the position of executive-in-residence for one year before deciding to make the shift to being the program director, a jump she said was not necessarily typical.
She made this decision because she was personally passionate about the program she started, and said it is also very possible that people would return to their company position after serving as an executive-in-residence at an academic institution.
“I think it totally depends on the individual as far as where they are in their career and what they want to do next,” she said.
Although Spitz and Young Smith will not formally be working together, Spitz said that she had been talking with her over the summer hoped they would have the opportunity to collaborate due to an overlap in their passions.
“I’m looking forward to one plus one equaling three,” she said. “My focus is on getting more women to engage in tech careers, and Denise’s focus is around ‘how do we create the leaders for tomorrow that are going to understand what it means to be inclusive leaders.’ I think those things are great synergies for each other.”
Young Smith holds a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from Grambling State University and an M.A. from the University of Phoenix, according to her Linkedin profile.
In the University press release, Young Smith said she chose to take on the position at Cornell Tech because it will “allow me to address the deep sense of urgency I feel to help evolve the thinking of our current and future tech leaders.
“By instilling the value of true diversity and inclusion into Cornell Tech’s unique base of students and faculty, we will not only make an impact on the institution but also, and most important, on the next generation of leaders as they go out into the world,” she said.