Transcript: Race in America: Corporate Leadership with Lisa Jackson

MR. CAPEHART: Welcome to Washington Post Live and another in our series on “Race in America: Corporate Leadership,” co-produced with the “Capehart” podcast. I am Jonathan Capehart, associate editor at The Washington Post.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, corporate America moved boldly into the racial equity and justice space, but now there’s pushback, and some companies are backing off their initial fervor. But not Apple. Joining me now, Lisa Jackson, vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives at Apple, who also served as the 12th Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama.

Lisa Jackson, welcome back to Washington Post Live.

MS. JACKSON: Thank you, Jonathan. Lovely to be here. An honor to be here on this topic. Thank you.

MR. CAPEHART: Oh, well, thank you.

So Apple’s Racial Equity and Justice initiative has surpassed $200 million in multi-pronged investments. What are those investments exactly?

MS. JACKSON: The initiative is focused in three main areas. When we started, we wanted to be true to who we are as a company, to invest in places we know well. So what’s the place we know really well? That’s education, and of course, for so many, myself included, education is the ladder, the way to equity. It’s equity of opportunity. And so we’ve–our probably most important pillar has been investing in education, whether that is coding education, for example, our Developer Academy, the only developer academy in the United States, located in Detroit, home to 50,000 small businesses who can use technology to really jumpstart their work, or I work with Hispanic-serving institutions or historically black colleges and universities, both of whom I’m happy to talk to you about.

After education, we looked at two other areas. The second is economic empowerment. When we look at a company like Apple, we know that giving people the chance to create jobs, to be business owners, to be entrepreneurs, incredibly important, and so we’ve spent a lot of time and effort on an Entrepreneur Academy, that we had one for a long time, but we really redoubled our efforts to include and recruit Black and people of color, entrepreneurs to that Black, Hispanic, Latinx, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and then even an accelerator to try to get more and more businesses that are owned by people of color in the environmental field to come into Apple, learn what it takes to be an Apple contractor. And we’ve hired several of those.

And then the last–so education, economic empowerment–the third leg on the stool, if you will, is criminal justice, and there, while we’re very aware that our products are oftentimes used as part of illuminating some of the injustices in the system, we thought it best to support organizations that have been doing this work for a long time. So there, it really is more about just financial support to organizations who’ve been working on criminal justice reform for a long time.

MR. CAPEHART: Okay. So you’ve given us three buckets. I’m going to go to the second bucket, economic empowerment. Two weeks ago, Apple announced an additional $25 million in venture capital to expand support for minority businesses and address systemic barriers to finding access–funding access. How does this work, and what are the criteria? Is there an–and then the second part of that question, is there an expectation of a return on these investments?

MS. JACKSON: Well, of course, we want all businesses to be successful. So I’ll say it’s great to expect return, but we also know that will take some time, because those businesses have historically been so undercapitalized. So it’s actually a total of a hundred million. $50 million, as you noted, we put an additional $25 million. So we have $50 million in the venture capital space, with Harlem Capital, Collab Capital, VamosVentures. These are VC firms that look for minority-run small businesses and entrepreneurships to invest in.

But we also put some money in CNote, which actually invests in–puts money on deposit in minority banking institutions and financial institutions so that money can circulate around the community.

And then we also have $25 million in the Siebert Williams Impact Fund, and they actually make loans to minority-owned businesses, small business loans.

So the idea being, of course, all those things–they’re banks, they’re financial, they’re venture capital–everybody’s in the business of trying to get returns on their investment. We’re just trying to ensure that people are getting opportunity to be funded so that their dreams, their entrepreneurship can have a shot at the American Dream.

MR. CAPEHART: Right. Equality of opportunity is–

MS. JACKSON: Absolutely.

MR. CAPEHART: –ack to what you said before.

So Apple has taken a holistic approach, a sort of approach to criminal justice, education, small business or economic empowerment. Why this approach as opposed to, say, a more concentrated approach that focuses on one of those issues?

MS. JACKSON: Yeah. It’s a great question. I think we wanted to try to touch the places where we thought we could have impact, and in honor of how this all got started, our Racial Equity and Justice initiative is three years old. It started in the wake of the George Floyd, the Breonna Taylor deaths, and we wanted to honor their encounters with the criminal justice system, which was so deeply unfair to say that those murders, as they happen, should also–there should be work done in that area as well. So we picked education because it’s what we know. We know we can make an impact. We have a long history of working in education, but we’ve really revved that up in terms of people of color.

We picked economic empowerment because it’s the same thing. Apple is known for our supply chain, for having created and helped businesses grow who are part of our supply chain. We should have the same focus on ensuring our supply chain is creating opportunity for people of color.

And like I said, criminal justice, there we really felt like we couldn’t meet the moment without a nod to the incredible work that organizations like The Last Mile or recidivists are doing to try to change outcomes for those who are impacted by the criminal justice system.

MR. CAPEHART: So let’s keep going on the criminal justice system, because folks get why Apple is involved in bucket number one, education or bucket number two, economic empowerment, but criminal justice? What’s Apple’s goal in that realm?

MS. JACKSON: We just want to be a force for positive, forward moving and–movement and justice. And as I said, if you look at the origins of the work, it did not feel right, and it would not feel right even today to suddenly walk away and say that these deaths were in vain. I mean, these people inspired a movement, inspired us all to look again at our country and say there are systems that are unjust.

Our education system could be more just if there were resources in it, and that’s something we can help with. Our business systems, our entrepreneurship systems could be more just if there were opportunities for people to get funding, and we can help with that. And lastly, we can’t turn our back on the fact that if you happen to be impacted by the criminal justice system, you deserve equality of representation and opportunity so that you can hopefully get a just outcome.

Justice is–needs to be served, and so it just did not feel right to walk away from this moment. It isn’t the largest part of what we do, Jonathan. I don’t want anyone to think that’s where we’re spending most of our time. In fact, it’s where we’re spending the fewer–fewest amount of our resources, but it didn’t feel right to walk away from it either.

MR. CAPEHART: And to be clear, your spending, meaning Apple’s spending, a few of your resources on an issue is still huge, since your market cap is enormous, bigger than a whole lot of countries.

So, Lisa, as a former federal official, could these corporate efforts–and specifically Apple’s efforts–in part, be viewed as an indictment on government and its seeming inability to effect real change? And the more I talk to business leaders, the more I keep thinking about the fact that business leaders today–and specifically Tim Cook, the head of Apple–being much more vocal and forward in really walking into issues that private business or corporate America wouldn’t even come near, say a generation ago. So is it more incumbent upon the private sector to get involved in accomplishing or shaping societal goals?

MS. JACKSON: Tim has always been clear that Apple leads with our values, that we have values, and those values show up in every decision that we need to make.

And so I’ll say two things. You asked as a former official. I’ll say that as former head of a regulatory agency for the environment, it was incredibly important to me and to my team that leadership companies would come in and say, “Hey, we have figured out a way to make money and still preserve the climate or air quality or water quality.” I could point to those companies and say, “Hey, this can be done. We’re not asking you to do something impossible. We’re asking you to do something responsible.”

So first off, we believe it is our job as a company that wants to be a leader to show that this is something that business can take on in addition to the other work that we do.

Second, it’s something that our customers expect. We have six values at Apple: accessibility, education, the environment, privacy, inclusion and diversity, and responsibility in our supply chain. And we hear from our customers on every one of them, and so, yeah, it’s part of what we have to do as a business in order to lead, in order to make sure our customers know this is something we care about and that we act. We don’t just talk about it. We actually put our money and our resources and our time and our skill and our products into working on these issues.

But it’s not an indictment. It’s meant to be a partnership, and it certainly cannot take the place of good government. It absolutely cannot do that.

MR. CAPEHART: This role that some corporations have embraced, particularly in the social justice space, diversity, equity, inclusion space, have been criticized and attacked by the political right. By now, the phrase “woke corporations” or “woke capitalism” is being invoked by many politicians on the right. What do you make of this backlash? What do you suspect is driving it?

MS. JACKSON: You know, what I do is I look back at how we do what we do at Apple. Again, we’re trying to keep our values in front of us. We’ve been very clear, and Tim’s been very clear, as you noted, that a company–that the company he runs has values, has things we care about.

Accessibility is a great other example. We’re talking about racial equity and justice today, which was added along the way in response to the Floyd and Taylor murders.

But when you look at it, we could make products that are wonderful, but if it means we’re making products that people with disabilities can’t use, we don’t feel like we’ve made the best products in the world. So if you keep your values, if you have values and you’re authentic, that means you’re not just paying lip service. They really do guide how you work. They guide the development of our product. They guide how we approach the world.

Environment, which is what I came to run, is my personal passion. Environment and ensuring equity and justice, they are important to our customers. But if you keep that in front, it guides what kind of products we make and how we make them and what we do and how we even recycle them. So I think the key here is that a business has to know who they are, be authentic to what that is, and if it’s–if that is the case, it’s going to show up in the work. It’s going to show up in our products.

MR. CAPEHART: I’m going to skip ahead since you’re talking about the company’s values and products and ask a couple difficult questions, and then we’ll come back to other stuff like the Supreme Court affirmative action ruling. But Apple products–

MS. JACKSON: So those are easy questions?


MR. CAPEHART: You haven’t heard this one yet.

So Apple products like the iPhone require lithium batteries, which require cobalt, and cobalt mining has been linked to child and slave labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has ravaged the environment there. Apple is named in a lawsuit back in 2019 over its involvement there. What kind of mechanisms are in place to ensure that the cobalt being used by Apple is sourced responsibly and not working against your larger environmental efforts?

MS. JACKSON: Yeah, fair question. First, I’m not going to comment on any lawsuit. I wouldn’t want to be doing that, so just to be clear.

But we absolutely have to have responsible decision-making and responsible choices made about the materials we use. You mentioned cobalt. Apple announced this year, actually on Earth Day, that by next year, all of the batteries that Apple uses–actually start 2025. I got my years mixed up. By 2025, all of the cobalt in all of the batteries we design and spec will be recycled cobalt. Why? Because a large part of our strategy here is that it is very difficult. We have been leading for years on trying to ensure that we know where the supply of many minerals, including cobalt, come from.

But one of the other things we can do is to make much better use of the material that’s already out here in the world. We should reduce, of course, our use of it, but then we should also use recycled materials.

So we still have a little bit of work to do to get our supply chain all the way buttoned up, but in a year and a half, we’ll be using a hundred percent recycled cobalt. And that is part of our strategy. We are going to work as hard as we can to ensure safety of supply, but we’re going to lead in also trying to find alternative ways to try to move the problem into a place where we feel very assured that it’s been addressed.

MR. CAPEHART: All right. Let me ask you about a lawsuit, I know you’ll want to talk about, and this is the amicus brief that Apple filed in the affirmative action case that the Supreme Court just decided last week. Apple was one of nearly 70 companies to submit an amicus brief arguing that affirmative action in university and university admissions programs should continue. Why did Apple do this?

MS. JACKSON: Because we are committed to diversity and inclusion, because we have said that for us, our success, our ability to meet the moment, to make products that serve everyone depends on diversity. Essentially, innovation and diversity are tied together. It is our strong belief.

So what do you need when you mean when we talk about diversity? There’s diversity, but we include racial and ethnic diversity in that mix. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you something you don’t know, but ethnic diversity and racial diversity in Silicon Valley has been a challenge, remains a challenge. And one of the things we need is a strong pool of applicants and potential employees.

So, of course, we are going to–we did and are proud of the fact that we joined with these other companies to weigh in on the business imperative for diversity, on the business imperative for continuing to assure that students who need and deserve opportunity have access to educations that can help make them the Apple employees of the future.

MR. CAPEHART: And then how worried are you that this ruling then will impact private-sector hiring decisions, not just at Apple but broadly?

MS. JACKSON: Of course, we have to worry because it is one of our imperatives to continue to focus on inclusion and diversity, and we will. Our value is not going to change. So we have to continue to find ways to ensure that we are meeting students where they are.

So let’s go back to Reggie for a second. We’ve always worked in education, but to some degree, our work over the last three years to really amp up our work with historically black colleges and universities and our work with Hispanic-serving institutions and our work that we’re really starting with Tribal colleges and universities serves us even better, because we’re making relationships with those institutions that we think will continue to help form a partnership that can maybe help to overcome any additional obstacles that might be put in the way of our recruitment efforts. It’s a holistic picture. We’re going to continue to work at it, but we’re still very, very much committed to the idea that innovation relies on diversity.

MR. CAPEHART: So as you and I both know, affirmative action made it possible for African Americans and others to be in classrooms, boardrooms, and other spaces that were once off limits. You were the first Black person to lead the EPA, and you’re the–and correct me if I’m wrong on this. You’re the most senior Black person at Apple. So could you talk to–talk to us about the responsibilities and the challenge that come with being a first and how that’s shaped your approach and your thinking on these issues.

MS. JACKSON: Yeah. It goes back further than that, Jonathan. You know, I am a chemical engineer by training. I went to Tulane University, and I got my master’s at Princeton University. And the reason I ended up at Tulane University is because there was a program to try to attract more talented minority students to be engineers. At the time, I was in high school. I didn’t even know what an engineer was. I thought engineers worked on trains. So if there had not been a project called, NACME, the consortium for minorities in engineering, who found me, who recruited me to come and try this thing called engineering, I wouldn’t be sitting here today with the qualifications I have. Tulane found me. Shell Oil Company found me and gave me a scholarship. Princeton found me as well. And I consider all of those institutions lucky for having found me, because I brought a lot to the table as well.

I believe that we need to continue to go and find diversity in students, Hispanic, Latinx students, Indigenous students, and Black students because we will be better off for it, and I think that is really the message.

I have another friend who says–I believe it was Donna Brazile who said we have to open the door and leave it open wide enough for others to come behind us, and I really believe that, and I’ve lived my life that way.

MR. CAPEHART: Let me get you talking about climate again, but this time, in terms of–and to put on your former EPA administrator hat on this one, because the extreme weather around the country and in the world disproportionately hits vulnerable communities and disadvantaged communities. Talk about the connection between the two.

MS. JACKSON: Well, sure. I mean, you know, it’s everything from what we call “fenceline communities,” oftentimes the land that was most prone to flood or the areas that were least likely to be arable, to be able to grow crops, were given to those parts of society, which had been marginalized. And in the past, that marginalization was official and government sanctioned, and it was in the form of segregation and, in many cases, redlining.

So it’s not an accident that the home I grew up in, when I was just a few years old, maybe I think five or six, was devastated by Hurricane Betsy in New Orleans. And then fast forward to 2005, that same home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. So communities live with those kinds of zoning and land use decisions, and as the weather gets wetter or hotter, communities in what we call the “Global South” are going to suffer the most. Island communities, communities on shorelines are going to suffer, communities in the low lands. A lot of times in our neighborhoods, we hear about the other side of the track and the lowlands. Those lands are low because they weren’t as desirable because they can flood more easily, and whenever I see, as we’re seeing today, people who are going through the horror of flooding, I immediately am transported back to New Orleans and realizing what that devastation means to a community. It is devastating. Yes, you can rebuild, but what it does to destroy ownership and wealth, wealth which is so important in our society, is devastating.

I’m not even going to get into fenceline communities and people who live nearby major polluting industries who oftentimes bear the brunt health-wise of the air pollution and water pollution and sometimes land pollution that are a result. That is why, in my opinion, any solution for climate has to include equity. If it doesn’t include equity and justice, if those communities are not engaged in the solutions and they’re also not engaged in getting the jobs and opportunity of the green economy, then it’s not a solution, because it’s still leaving out communities who eventually are not going to be able to continue to bear that burden.

MR. CAPEHART: So given what you just said, do you think talking about climate change as a racial justice issue or a social justice issue makes collective action harder, especially given the tenor and tone of the debate in this country right now when it comes to issues of race, racial justice, social justice, and anything else that is peripheral to that?

MS. JACKSON: Look, I don’t think water and wildfire know race. I really don’t. I think flooding is flooding. It may well be that some communities and communities of color–or I’ll say economically deprived communities under-resourced may be on the front line, but that doesn’t protect you. Air blows. You know, pollution moves. Water flows downhill. So we can look right now at what’s happening in the Northeast and see it’s hitting all kind of communities.

And so what I think that the part of the answer–I certainly don’t pretend to have answers, but part of it is the way we’ve approached some of our climate work at Apple, which is to center it around community. It isn’t around one race or one group of people, but to say if we’re looking for a solution, it also needs to be good for the surrounding community. You can’t go in to decide to preserve an area, take it off of any kind of development opportunity or potential, and then say to the community that surrounds it, good luck finding a job, you know.

So a lot of what we’re doing, for example, is investing in timber and forest preservation for timber use. Why? Because, hey, it’s great to have trees growing. That is very good for air quality. It removes CO2 from the air, but it’s also a job for people, and we need both. And so I think the answer there is that there’s actually incredible opportunity in speaking to communities, hopefully as a way to bring us all together as Americans, to say this challenge of climate change, the opportunities need to be looked at on a community-by-community level.

MR. CAPEHART: Great way to end this conversation. Lisa Jackson, vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives at Apple, thank you so much for coming back to Washington Post Live.

MS. JACKSON: Thank you so much for having me back. It’s good to see you. Thank you.

MR. CAPEHART: You too. You too.

And thank you for joining us. To find out what interviews we have coming up, head to

Once again, I’m Jonathan Capehart, associate editor of The Washington Post. Thanks for joining “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.

[End recorded session]

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