Apple's Tim Cook says the 'best products' are born from diversity

Commentary: Apple's chief explains why having more women and minorities in tech matters to Apple and the rest of the industry. In short, diversity is the key to future success.


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Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a sign of change, had two female executives give product demos during the company's developer fest Monday. "This developer conference continues to be the epicenter of change, for not only Apple but the industry." Apple

At Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference Monday, the company unveiled two new operating systems for its popular iPhones, iPads and Mac computers, new software for its 6-week-old smartwatch, and a revamped streaming music service.

But even with all that product news, WWDC 2015 may go down in history as the event where two female Apple executives -- Jennifer Bailey, vice president of Internet services, and Susan Prescott, a VP of product marketing -- talked tech before an audience made up primarily of male engineers.

That's noteworthy because until Monday, only two women had spoken during a WWDC keynote since 2007 -- and neither of them worked at Apple. (Stephanie Morgan and a male colleague talked about their StarDefense gaming app in 2009, while Zynga mobile game director Jen Herman spoke at WWDC in 2010.)

CEO Tim Cook knew Bailey and Prescott would make an impression, saying at the start of his keynote, "This developer conference continues to be the epicenter of change, for not only Apple but the industry."

Cook hinted on Sunday that women would finally take the WWDC stage, telling tech site Mashable to expect a "change" in the presenter lineup. Cook has been touting the need to employ more women and people of color since Apple last year issued a report revealing 70 percent of its workers were men. Cook blamed the tech community for its lack of diversity. Companies haven't done enough to show young women that tech is "cool" and "fun," he said, adding that the industry needs more women and minorities as role models.

But his most notable point -- and the one that may finally move the needle in the tech industry -- was this: "The most diverse group will produce the best product, I firmly believe that," Cook said. So "if you believe as we believe that diversity leads to better products, and we're all about making products that enrich people's lives, then you obviously put a ton of energy behind diversity the same way you would put a ton of energy behind anything else that is truly important."

Cook's observation matches those from McKinsey & Co., Lehman Brothers, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich and many, many others who have studied diversity's impact on business: diversity leads to better products, better products mean more sales, and more sales translate into higher profit.

In other words, the bottom line is that diversity is good for the bottom line.

And that makes diversity a management issue, a point the CNET News team highlighted in last month's special report about women in tech called "Solving for XX." If the most successful companies have a diverse workforce, leadership team and board of directors, then those less-diverse companies are being run by managers who don't have what it takes to run a successful business in today's competitive world.

Cook seemed to agree. "It's readily solvable because most of the issues have been created by humans, so they can be fixed," he said. "Some of this costs money, some of it doesn't. Mostly it's a way of thinking."

It's 2015, after all, not 1951.

Well, here's how I think about it. If you were putting together a baseball team, you'd want the best players with the broadest skills to win, right? But what if your manager brought in nine catchers to cover every position? There's no question it takes skill to be a great catcher -- throwing a ball to second base from a crouched position at home plate is no easy feat. Even so, I doubt you'd have the winningest team with nothing but catchers. And I doubt you'd renew that manager's contract.

Some critics of tech's diversity efforts argue the lack of women and minorities hasn't hurt tech. After all, they say, Apple, Facebook and Google became financially successful even with non-diverse teams running them.

But here's the thing: They all could have been even more successful if they'd had more women and minorities in the ranks. The research is unequivocal: more-diverse teams are smarter teams that consistently build better, more innovative products. And that means less-diverse companies have been leaving money on the table. I'm pretty sure the board and investors would never tell company executives, "That's OK. We're profitable enough. We're good with sales at these levels."

I'm optimistic the tech industry is be headed in the right direction -- and not because Apple finally showed that it employs knowledgeable female executives who can tout new products on stage just as well as their male colleagues. I'm encouraged because the CEO of one of the world's most profitable companies said this week that diverse teams are key to his company's future success.

To be fair, Google and Microsoft had more women on stage during the keynotes at their developer conferences (three apiece). But if there's anything I know after years of covering the tech industry, it's that Apple is the company that breeds copycats.

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