Tim Cook, Fuqua ’88, is the CEO of one of the world’s largest and best-known corporations—and he is this year’s commencement speaker.
Cook was announced as the pick through a video introduction at a men’s basketball game against Pittsburgh in January. The Apple CEO will be joined by student speaker Deeksha Malhotra, a senior, in addressing the more than 5,500 Duke graduates.
“I’m honored to be returning to Duke this weekend to help celebrate the Class of 2018,” he wrote in an email Monday. “I graduated from Fuqua 30 years ago, and the friends and memories I made at Duke are among the most treasured of my life.”
Cook, an Alabama native, came to Fuqua with an undergraduate degree from Auburn University, where he majored in industrial engineering and graduated in 1982. At Fuqua, Cook excelled academically and was named a Fuqua Scholar—an honor reserved for the top 10 percent of students in each class—and earned his master of business administration degree.
He joined Duke’s Board of Trustees in 2015 and has served on its facilities and environment committee, the audit, risk and compliance committee and the business and finance committee.
The well-known executive did not always work for Apple. Before joining Steve Jobs there in 1988, Cook spent time working with Compaq and as the vice president of corporate materials. He has also spent 12 years working with IBM, including as the director of North American fulfillment for the company.
During his time at Apple, Cook headed up the company’s Macintosh division and served as chief operating officer. As COO, he was responsible for all of the technology giant’s operations and sales worldwide. This included end-to-end management of the company’s supply chain across all markets.
After taking over as CEO from Steve Jobs in August 2011 due to Jobs' illness, Cook led Apple to become the world’s most valuable and largest publicly traded corporation. When he publicly announced that he is gay in 2014, he became the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Cook also serves on the board of directors for Nike and the National Football Foundation. Since taking the helm at Apple, he has received a number of high-profile awards, including Fortune Magazine’s World’s Greatest Leader Award in 2015 and the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award in the same year.
President Vincent Price said in a January press release that he is “absolutely delighted” that Cook will be this year’s commencement speaker, detailing the CEO’s relationship to the University’s values.
“Throughout his career, Tim has embodied Duke’s values of innovation and service to society, whether through his contributions to Apple’s groundbreaking technology or his advocacy for social justice,” Price said. “I can imagine no better person, and no bigger Duke fan, to inspire the Class of 2018.”
Students have also weighed in on the significance of Cook's return to campus. Senior Matthew King said in the January release that he felt Cook is a fantastic pick for this year’s commencement.
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“He cares deeply about Duke, and he's a Blue Devil through and through,” King said. “Many of us aspire to be like Tim Cook when we grow up, so what could be better than to hear from him directly?”
Kavya Sekar, a master of public policy candidate in the Sanford School of Public Policy, echoed King’s sentiments.
“He's a great role model for us all—the CEO of one of the most successful tech companies, the first openly gay Fortune 500 leader and a trustee of Duke,” she said in the press release. “I trust that he can teach us to take risks and be true to ourselves.”
Importantly, this is not the CEO’s first time speaking at Duke. In 2013, he addressed a group of Fuqua students as part of his class reunion, talking about the importance of rules and when to throw them out.
It is also not his first commencement address. Last year, he spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, responding to the question of “how will you serve humanity?” MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech, reported that Cook told the graduates that it was not until he began at Apple that his work felt meaningful.
“If we are ever going to solve some of the hardest problems facing the world today...then technology will help us do that,” said Cook, according to The Tech. “But technology alone isn’t the solution. And sometimes, it’s even part of the problem.”
When he delivers Sunday’s address, Cook will be following in the steps of David Rubenstein, Trinity '70 and former chair of the Board of Trustees. Last year, Rubenstein gave graduates the “Da Vinci code of being a Duke graduate” in his address, encouraging them to be bold and make a difference.
Cook wrote that he is honored to be returning to address the Class of 2018.
“They’re the next generation of leaders, and they have the power to change our world,” he wrote. “I’ll try to help them get started.”