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Apple HR chief: Diversity challenge won't 'be changed overnight'

Denise Young Smith also says Apple CEO Tim Cook is "personally involved" in improving diversity at the company.

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Denise Young Smith, Apple's head of HR, says Apple has learned it "requires an incredible amount of mindfulness and focus" to improve diversity. Screenshot by Shara Tibken/CNET

Apple knows it needs to do more to encourage diversity, but it will take time to show real results in the numbers, the company's head of human resources said Tuesday.

The "diversity challenge ... didn't happen overnight so it's not going to be changed overnight," Denise Young Smith, Apple's vice president of worldwide human resources, said during the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colorado. "The long-term aspect of it is what I hope people start to really internalize and understand."

She added that Apple has learned it "really requires an incredible amount of mindfulness and focus" to improve diversity at the company, particularly when Apple is laser-focused on creating new products and growing. Apple has been taking steps to increase the number of women and minorities at the company, she said.

"Diversity as a concept should be part of your talent strategy," Smith said. "It means you're ... all of the obvious things like race, gender, sexual orientation, but diversity is different. ... Different is our legacy at Apple."

Smith has held several HR roles since joining Apple in 1997, including running HR for Apple's worldwide operations and corporate employee relations team. For over 10 years, she also sat on the leadership team that built Apple's retail organization. Before Apple, Smith consulted with early-stage startups about HR and other topics.

Smith is one of the executives Apple has recently highlighted as evidence of its focus on diversity. The company shifted its executive leadership page a year ago to include some of its vice presidents instead of highlighting only its top 10 executives. It also featured two women on stage at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June, the first time it had any women on stage during a WWDC keynote since 2007 -- and that year, neither of the women on stage worked at Apple.

Apple and most of the other big companies in Silicon Valley have been under fire for having a small percentage of women in both leadership and general positions in their companies. Apple's diversity report last year showed that of its 98,000 employees around the globe, including those in non-technical positions and those working at Apple Stores, 70 percent were male.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has tried to inject more diversity in Apple's management team. He promoted Eddy Cue, a Cuban, to his role as senior vice president of Internet software and services in October 2012. Cook also named Angela Ahrendts, the former Burberry CEO, as Apple's head of online and in-store retail. In addition, he appointed Susan Wagner, a director at BlackRock, to Apple's board in place of long-running director Bill Campbell.

Cook also has stressed that Apple focuses on other forms of diversity beyond just race and gender. The private executive in October publicly acknowledged for the first time that he is gay, saying he wants to use his position as leader of one of the world's most valuable companies to bring attention to the discrimination minorities face.

"I'm proud to be gay. I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me," Cook said in an essay. "Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It's made me more empathetic."

Smith on Tuesday noted that Cook has been "personally involved" and is "incredibly personally committed" to efforts to boost diversity at Apple.

"I think everyone imagines a leader that helps you do your best work and helps you be great," She said. Cook "absolutely does that, but he goes over and above that. ... He helps you to be a better human being and helps you to think about are you aligned with your personal value system and the value system Apple espouses. He walks the talk. ... And he holds everyone else accountable to that."