Apple Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, in a rare public speech, called on new college graduates to fight for what they believe in and said his journey of self discovery led to his view that equality is a right.
“The sidelines are not where you want to live your life,” Cook told a crowd of more than 25,000 people at George Washington University’s graduation ceremony on Sunday. “The world needs you in the arena. There are problems that need to be solved, injustices that need to be ended, people who are still being persecuted, diseases still in need of a cure.”
The remarks in Washington are part of a broader trend toward social activism in corporate America. Cook joined other Silicon Valley leaders in March to criticize Indiana for enacting a law that they said targeted the gay community. Sunday’s speech comes just weeks before the U.S. Supreme court is set to rule on a historic case that may legalize same-sex marriages in the U.S.
“There is an opportunity to do work that’s infused with moral purpose,” Cook, 54, said with the Washington Monument to his back. “You don’t have to choose between doing good and doing well -- it’s a false choice, today more than ever.”
Indiana’s statute, which gave businesses the right to refuse service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds, was later changed. Cook in October criticized his home state of Alabama for not protecting people based on their sexual orientation. A few days later, in an essay in Bloomberg Businessweek, he wrote that he was gay and considers that “among the greatest gifts God has given me.”
Since becoming CEO in 2011 as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs neared death, Cook has pushed the company into more assertive public roles. He last spoke at a graduation at his alma mater, Auburn University, in 2010. Jobs had made his own mark with a commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, when he urged the graduates to “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”
On Sunday, Cook said he won his first trip to Washington at age 16 through an essay contest with an entry he wrote by hand because his family couldn’t afford a typewriter.
Before flying to Washington -- his first time on an airplane -- teenage Cook went with a local delegation to meet Governor George Wallace, who years earlier tried to block black students from attending the University of Alabama.
“Wallace embraced the evils of segregation: He pitted whites against blacks, the South against the North, the working class against the so-called elites,” Cook said. “Meeting my governor was not an honor for me. My heroes in life were Doctor Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, who had fought against the very things that Wallace stood for.”
Cook recalled how his textbooks as a child talked about the U.S. Civil War as a battle for states’ rights and barely mentioned slavery.
“I had to figure out what was right and true,” aided at times by books from the public library, the executive told the graduates. “It was a search, it was a process. It drew on the moral sense that I learned from my parents, and in church and in my own heart, and led me on my own journey of discovery.”
Those searches “all pointed to the fact that Wallace was wrong,” Cook said. “Injustices like segregation have no place in our world, that equality is a right.”