Steve Jobs has long been celebrated as a hero for middle-class, geeky white guys. But he was also deeply concerned about bringing more minorities into engineering, and into his own company. I know, because he told me. Even better, he hired me to help him do it.
Little did I know, God would allow my life path to intersect with that of Steve Jobs, the late cofounder and CEO of Apple. I met Steve four years ago and continued to interact with him until this past spring.
Since 2004, I’ve taught computer science at Spelman College, the historically black school for women in Atlanta. In December 2007, I took the SpelBots, Spelman College’s all-women robotics team, to Stanford University to give a presentation at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, which included an open showcase to the community. The SpelBots represent undergraduate female student trailblazers and role models who are paving the way for younger female and African American students by competing internationally against graduate-level engineering universities in RoboCup humanoid robot soccer competitions. RoboCup represents the closest we have to an international “Olympics” of robotics and artificial intelligence research.
After the SpelBots’ visit to Stanford, we did a tour of Silicon Valley, stopping off at Google for breakfast and Apple for lunch so that our students could see these world-class technology companies firsthand. During our lunch at Apple, my friend Scott, who was an employee there, told me not to look over my shoulder. “Steve Jobs just walked in with Jonathan Ive,” he whispered. I immediately recognized Steve, but I had no idea who Jonathan Ive was until Scott explained that he was the chief industrial designer for Apple, the man who had designed such gadgets as the iPhone and the iMac.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Steve was both revered and feared at Apple, and that it was not a good idea to go up to Steve and try to talk to him. So, I went over to Jonathan Ive instead. I introduced myself and told him how much I liked his designs. We were having a nice chat when, suddenly, Steve Jobs came over to us.
I introduced myself, innocently including a little backstory as well: “Hi, I’m Andrew Williams, from Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, and Apple supports our robotics team.”
Steve quickly asked, “Do you have an engineering program?”
“We have a dual engineering program with universities such as Georgia Tech and Michigan,” I told him.
“Can you help us hire black engineers?” he said. “Do you know how many black engineers we have?”
Before I could say anything he shared a shockingly low number and confessed how poorly Apple was doing in finding black candidates. I’ll skip the full exchange, but suffice it to say, I got an intimate peek into Steve’s passion and energy. He was seriously upset at Apple’s efforts in that area. His last words to me that day were, “If you have any ideas on how we can hire more black engineers, send me an email.”
King of Silicon Valley
Having grown up in a small Kansas Army town, living in a two-bedroom trailer with my African American dad, Korean mom, and five siblings, my path to overcoming poverty and earning my Ph.D. in electrical engineering was not always clear. But there I stood that day, amazed at how God had given me the opportunity to meet the greatest innovator of my lifetime.
I recalled reading in the Book of Proverbs, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He shall stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men.” I had taken those words of wisdom to heart while pursuing my education, and now I was realizing them.
While working at GE Medical Systems in the early ’90s, during the first dot-com boom, I grieved the fact that there weren’t more African Americans going to Silicon Valley and making a difference in the new technological era. I understood that many underrepresented minorities lacked the connections and education to become computing entrepreneurs. But now, there I was being asked by, in my view, the ultimate computing entrepreneur for help in getting more African Americans to work for his world-renowned Silicon Valley company.
Challenging Steve Jobs
In 1995, I earned my master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Marquette University while I was at GE. I then left GE to work on my Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Kansas. I received my doctorate in 1999. Ever since, my passion has been to help underrepresented students reach their full educational potential in computing, so that they can play a productive role in our world’s changing economy and perhaps aspire to become “the next Steve Jobs.”
After my encounter with Steve, I went home and thought and prayed about what ideas I would give him about recruiting more black engineers at Apple. Then I composed an email that would change my life.
I began by explaining why I did what I did, including how my wife, Anitra, and I decided after reading The Purpose-Driven Life that I would leave my tenure-track faculty position at the University of Iowa so that I could fulfill my purpose of helping underrepresented students. I even attached a picture of my wife Anitra and my children, John, Adrianna, and Rosa to the email.
I also told him about the positive things I observed Apple doing to encourage and expand diversity. Apple, at the time, was building relationships with Atlanta University Center schools. I told him about my wife’s experience with her retail position at the Apple Store in Atlanta and how I could see growing diversity there. I bragged about how my Apple friends Scott and Denise were doing great with improving Apple’s diversity in both its university relations and retail. Denise, by the way, is an African American woman who at the time was Apple’s director of human resources for global retail.
I told Steve how important it was for students to see other underrepresented and female role models at top positions at Apple including its board of directors. I suggested he needed to make efforts to recruit at non-traditional “Apple” elite schools, such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and women’s colleges. I told him that our current SpelBots captain would make a great intern at Apple. I mentioned that it’s important to consider the importance of family when dealing with African American students in making career and education decisions. I also let him know that I admired Apple and that it was one of the few companies for which I would consider leaving academia.
After I sent the email, I waited and didn’t hear anything for several days. I think my Apple friends were concerned because few people dared to confront Steve and tell him what he should do. Yet I saw him as a fellow human being who was concerned with helping underrepresented students make his company continue to be great. A week later, I received a phone call from Scott, and later a copy of an email Steve had sent internally about how he was “sooooooooooooo happy” about what I told him about Apple’s recent diversity efforts and that he wanted to hire me to help “hire black engineers.” He had read my email so thoroughly that he pointed out that I had hinted I would consider working at Apple.
I soon found myself taking a yearlong sabbatical from Spelman College to become a full-time Apple employee. I was named Apple’s first Senior Engineering Diversity Manager.
I won’t divulge all that I did and saw at Apple, but I did witness positive changes being made at levels that were way above me that could only have come from Steve. I was able to directly influence the hiring of more African Americans, women, and other minorities as interns and eventually full-time Apple engineers.
I was especially proud that I played a role in helping one of my students become the first Spelman grad to work as a full-time engineer at Apple, after she had obtained her initial internship through my contact with Steve. I’ve met African American engineers at Apple who helped design the iPad; one of my former female students from the University of Iowa works with Jon Ive’s group; there are African Americans intimately involved with the App store; and the list goes on. There are now literally dozens of engineers from underrepresented groups who are making a contribution to the development of Apple’s products.
I continued interacting with Steve in various ways after I ended my sabbatical at Apple. I gave him a copy of my autobiography, he received my family’s Christmas newsletter, and we periodically connected via email or indirect messages. One poignant note that I sent to him shared how with Apple’s newI was able to “tuck in” my youngest daughter, Rosa, while I was away from home on business trips. Using FaceTime, I’d tell her a story and pray with her before she went to bed. Because of Apple’s technology, we didn’t have to sacrifice our bedtime routine — even when I was a thousand miles away.
My final interaction with Steve occurred this past spring. In a March 30th email, I told him I was praying for him and his family. I also let him know that one of our SpelBots students had won a national iPhone app competition and that she thought Apple should hire her as an intern. She had applied for summer internships at Apple over the last few years but could never break through. I didn’t hear back from Steve directly, but not long after that my student received a call from an Apple recruiter who said Steve had forwarded her résumé. Sure enough, this past summer our SpelBots student was hired as an Apple intern and soon will be offered a full-time position as an engineer.
A company such as Apple, which at the time of this writing has over $80 billion of cash on hand, can pick and choose whomever they want to hire. So, I’m always glad when they recognize the talent and potential of individuals from groups that are underrepresented in the engineering ranks.
My hope is that Steve’s vision for diversity at Apple will not die now that he’s gone. I also hope that other CEOs learn from him that a true, passionate commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment does not diminish but only enhances innovation.
Take it from Steve Jobs to understand diversity’s value and significance. He recognized that a diverse team of smart and creative people was essential to the success of his company, and to the future of our nation’s global competitiveness. Because of his sincere commitment to diversity, who knows? The next great American innovator could very well be an African American, a Latino, a woman. The iPad and the iPhone are wonderful, but for me that would be Steve’s most enduring legacy.