As the head of human resources for Apple’s retail stores and one of the few African American women who has ever held a role on Apple’s —or any major tech company’s—executive team, Denise Young Smith’s crown of dreadlocks was no afterthought. In fact, she says, “Locs gave me a way to be truthfully seen. They were not as common or considered as fashionable back then as they are now, and they said, ‘You’re going to have to work harder to try to ignore that I’m a black woman in places where you’re not used to seeing me or us.’”
It’s been seven years since Young Smith did the big chop on those locs, but every once in a while, she harkens back. “I miss my locs,” she admits, “but I love the freedom of change. I’m now enjoying a season of getting to change my hair every time I feel like it.”
In the last year, Young Smith has changed a lot more than hairstyles. At the end of 2017, she left Apple after a groundbreaking 21-year career that was capped by CEO Tim Cook’s positioning her as Apple’s first VP of Diversity and Inclusion. Five months into the position, she came under fire and openly apologized for what she admitted were poorly worded remarks at the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia. Asked if black women would be a priority for her in her new role, it was widely reported that she said it was possible to have diversity among a dozen white men, given their different “life experience and life perspective.”
Most of the coverage failed to include the full scope of her frustrated response, part of which was recounted in TechCrunch as follows: “I’ve been black and a woman for a long time. I have been a first, I’ve been an only. When I was at the same conference that I just referenced, there were numbers and numbers of black women together—successful, astonishing black women—and we were sharing stories and every single one of us could share the same stories about being in a room, in a meeting, and someone would assume you were the assistant, the secretary, that you were not the manager, you were not the boss and that your staff person that was three levels below you, was your boss. We all shared those stories…. You asked me about my work at Apple, or in particular, who do I focus on? I focus on everyone. Diversity is the human experience.”
The conference Young Smith was referencing was the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit, where she was recognized in 2017 as one of the most powerful black women in corporate America.
Before leaving Apple at the end of that year, Young Smith publicly announced her new role as an executive-in-residence at New York’s Cornell Tech. Privately, though, she was recording an album. Released Oct. 5, Denise Young, Soprano, might feel like a grand departure after a long corporate career, but only to those who don’t know her. Passionate about singing and dancing since childhood, she almost attended Julliard but opted to earn her degree in journalism and communications from Louisiana’s Grambling State University instead.
Recording the album in the midst of transitioning from Apple to the Big Apple (she is officially now bicoastal), required Smith to utilize “every business skill I’d learned over the years,” she says. “Recognizing talent, leading with a vision, inspiring a team, orchestrating details and trying to remain aesthetically open. How not to give up when you feel like you’re not moving forward.”
Young Smith joined Apple in 1997 as a senior director in HR. She went on to lead HR for the retail operation and, in 2014, after being promoted to head of HR, Fortune magazine touted her as “Apple’s New Voice.”
By then, Apple was a far different and more successful company than the one she joined 20 years prior. What it was not was far more diverse, particularly in terms of African Americans and Hispanics. Inside of the notoriously tight-lipped and secretive company, Young Smith was known for championing transparency and communication. She also prided herself on being accessible and says she was always mindful of the significance of her presence, particularly to anyone who felt different.
Throughout years of identifying and nurturing others talents, Young Smith never stopped tending her own. A lirico soprano, meaning that she can be heard over a full orchestra, she frequently gave recitals. In 2008, she even performed at Carnegie Hall—with dreadlocks, by the way.
She sees this new album (her second) as part of a long continuum of leading with her convictions and creating a career that isn’t either/or, but that embraces all that she is—as diversity and inclusion seeks to do. From Gershwin and Rachmaninov to a Sting cover and spirituals once sung on the porch, her new album is nothing if not a testament to the beauty that can occur when seemingly disparate elements are intentionally brought together.
Collaborations with spoken word artist Sekou Andrews, Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and the famous jazz/folk duo Tuck and Patti, combine to create an album that Smith says seeks to nurture every voice and make sure everyone is heard.
After two decades of putting corporate demands first, the balance has now shifted to a place of focused purpose as Young Smith reclaims her artistic voice, and owns it as never before. “I’m living for me now,” she says. “Cornell Tech is advanced academia. They welcome discourse. Apple is a shareholder-owned entity. Very different sensitivities.”