Tim Cook comes out: a bellwether shift for corporate America?

In a highly personal statement, Apple CEO Tim Cook says that he is 'proud to be gay' and also outlined a strong social vision for his company – even, he has said, at the expense of the bottom line.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/File
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during a presentation at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., on Oct. 16, 2014. On Wednesday, Cook publicly came out as gay, saying in a magazine article that he wanted to support others who find it difficult to reveal their sexual orientation.

In the rough and tumble world of global capitalism, cultural debates about social equality often take a back seat to the proverbial bottom line.

So when Tim Cook confirmed he was “proud to be gay” on Thursday, the head of Apple, Inc., the profit-making American juggernaut, cautiously stepped into a symbolic role unusual for a chief executive officer running one of the most cash-happy corporations on the planet.

In a deeply personal piece published Thursday morning, Mr. Cook invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said he considered “being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me,” and mused about the lines between personal privacy and social responsibility.

“I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others,” he wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek. “So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”

While Cook is hardly the first gay corporate executive within a Fortune 500 company – and his sexual orientation has long been something of an open secret in the business world – his public confirmation Thursday, and the larger social reasons he gave for doing so, could signal a shift in a generally conservative capitalist landscape. 

Most LGBT workers still hide this aspect of their identity at work, according to a recent study. 

Moreover, ideologically speaking, a corporation is formed to pursue shareholder profits, not necessarily make the world a better place or take stands that could alienate potential customers. 

But a growing number of corporate executives are challenging this notion. Earlier this month, a number of prominent business leaders gathered for the 8th Annual Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit in Austin, Texas, a group that bills itself as “a transformational movement dedicated to elevating humanity through business.” Speakers included executives from the companies Unilever Global, Chipotle, and others.

The movement’s co-founder, John Mackey, who’s also the co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, has said he wants to “re-imagine capitalism, and encourage a way of doing business that is grounded in ethical consciousness.”

“I describe [conscious capitalism] as a way of thinking about business to ensure that it is grounded in a higher purpose to enhance its positive impact on the world,” Mr. Mackey told Forbes last year. “When reinvented in this way, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful system of value creation mutually benefiting all stakeholders.”

Earlier this year, too, Cook lashed out against criticisms of Apple’s investments in green technology and the company’s attempts to tackle climate change. The National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative group skeptical of climate science, questioned whether such investments increased Apple’s bottom line, or provided shareholders with a “return on investment,” or ROI.

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI,” Cook said at Apple’s annual meeting in March, adding that health and safety issues also come before. Then he bluntly told skeptics, “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

On Thursday, too, as he confirmed that he was gay, Cook outlined a strong social vision for his company – the most profitable in the US and the second most on the planet – noting that Apple has long advocated for workplace and marriage equality, and stood against bills the company felt discriminated against gay people.  

“The company I am so fortunate to lead has long advocated for human rights and equality for all,” he said.

"We’ll continue to fight for our values, and I believe that any CEO of this incredible company, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, would do the same," he added. "And I will personally continue to advocate for equality for all people until my toes point up.”

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