Apple’s Denise Young Smith Discusses #MeToo in the Workplace


For over two decades, Denise Young Smith was the vice president of Diversity and Inclusion at Apple. Even though she left the company in 2017, she is known as one of the most prominent African-American female executives in Silicon Valley. 

Smith already visited Colorado College once last year, but came back again due to high demand. This year, she discussed the #MeToo movement within the workplace, drawing on her own experience at Apple and at her new job with Cornell Tech.

“The #MeToo movement has been very fascinating to me,” Smith said. “Where we are today is in one of those times of cultural transformation. Many companies and organizations are still working at an industrial level. The movement has been a product from this — from this ‘sameness’ that exists within the workplace today.”

Smith spoke often of the concept of ‘sameness’ — companies sticking to the same cultural environment that has existed for decades. She explained how this culture needs to be dismantled, and that the expectations for women in the workplace need to shift along with it. When confronted with these ideas of change, Smith recognized how organizations are not always welcoming.

Illustration by Cate Johnson

“How can we start this conversation when companies or organizations are confronted and their first reaction is ‘I am going to lose something. Coming into my space will cause me harm’” stated Smith. “When we are afraid of each other — how do we work through that?”

Her solution is simple: start a conversation. She stressed the importance of being an active part of the dialogue, to be the one who speaks up, who asks the difficult questions, to utilize your voice. 

“Never underestimate the power of your own voice. Never underestimate the power of communicating to the right person. It might feel uncomfortable, and it requires an incredible amount of courage. And that was what the #MeToo movement was all about” said Smith. “The ‘sameness’ created environments that were unattainable for those who did not fit into that social structure. It took one person’s voice for a whole movement. Never, ever, underestimate the power of your own voice.”

Smith’s career focuses on pushing organizations to uphold five main categories that allow space for change: determination, deliberate inclusion, accountability, authenticy, and truth with transparency. She believes 100 percent investment in these categories is the only way a company can, not just shift towards positive change, but maintain it in the future. 

“There’s accountability to sales and revenue, marketing,” said Smith. “There is accountability in every other business process. How in the world can we not have accountability when it comes to the environment within a company? And how can you account for every aspect and every corner of your organization? You can’t. But you can build a culture so that when something is raised that goes against that culture, you can address it” 

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