The reason for the dash to Lebanon by Apple supremo Tim Cook and Malala Yousafzai was the announcement of a groundbreaking tie-up between the tech giant and the women’s rights campaigner that will see funding and resources offered to Malala to help deliver her fund’s goal of getting 100,000 girls into education in places including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey and Nigeria. The 100,000 figure is an initial goal; they won’t be stopping at that.
To launch the partnership, Malala and Mr Cook made a flying visit to Lebanon, one of the target countries, where The Independent met them for an in-depth discussion. The conversation covered the need for free education, the gender gap in the UK and US – and if Mr Cook’s job will one day be filled by a woman.
Mr Cook is not your typical CEO. Dressed quietly but immaculately in pale blue shirt, storm blue crew neck and grey chinos, he eschews the clichés of leadership – his is a gentle, collegial approach. Malala, meanwhile, has a still but palpable energy, tailored by a sharp intellect and sense of purpose. The two are utterly at ease together, deferring to each other like old friends.
I begin by asking them where the initiative sprang from.
Mr Cook explains: “I met Malala in Oxford in October last year [she is reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University]. I reached out to Malala just to meet her.
“We began to talk and it became so clear that she had such a bold vision. It really lined up with the boldness of Apple and that the core of it is an overriding belief in equality and that education is the great equaliser. And that has always been at the root of our company and my personal beliefs. And so it started, the fire was lit there. I instantly wanted to throw in on the vision that Malala had.”
Malala continues with her side of the story: “I was really happy that Tim was at Oxford, and excited to meet him. We asked each other questions and we had a conversation about girls’ education and how technology can help us in getting more girls into schools and giving them the education that they want. I really wanted us to work together because Apple has expertise: they are expert in tech, they have resources and they have amazing and incredible people.
“Then the question was, how can we use that? The Malala Fund is trying to reach out to girls, how can we bring these two together to reach more girls, as many as we can, to empower them through quality education. And that was my dream. So, things started happening and I just can’t believe it has been a few months and now we are here in Lebanon and announcing our partnership for the coming years.”
It’s all come about pretty rapidly – four months and counting. “I think it shows the intersection of the values there. And if you intersect there you can do a lot of things very quickly. Then it just becomes a matter of the hows and not the whats,” Mr Cook says.
Of course, problems aren’t always solved or eased significantly just by throwing money at them. I wonder what else Apple can bring to the party besides cash, and what Malala wants from the company.
Mr Cook mentions the company’s founder, Steve Jobs, as he explains: “We have expertise in education. You know we’ve been serving the ‘ed’ market for 40 years; for the length of time of the company. It was a key focus of Steve’s from the start and so we’ve built an expertise of what our products can do in a teaching environment and how they can fuel student achievement.
“We’ve done that in many different settings from very underprivileged schools to the polar opposite. And we have touched a significant number of people with our coding initiative, using our retail stores working with many different groups that are touching girls’ organisations and students in general, but very focused on girls as well.
“And so we bring all of that. Of course, we have an expertise in scaling and we have lots of people in different countries across the world. So, it seemed like the most important thing to me is always values and the vision. And those are the same and then when I thought through this, it seemed like we could bring a lot in support of Malala’s vision.”
Malala takes up the theme. “You mentioned vision. The vision is clear. That is the education of 130 million girls who are out of school. My dream is to see every girl getting quality education and for that I’m hoping that through partnership with Apple we’ll be able to expand our work and we want to double our Gulmakai champions, who are the local advocates who are supporting the students, from six to 11 countries.
“I want to teach 100,000 girls and I want to involve girls and make sure that they can get quality education. Also, as you said, Tim, Apple has expertise in education, expertise in tech and we want to see how we can use that to help the Malala Fund.
“Many of the champions who are supporting them are using technology and finding new ways to make it easier for girls to have access to education whether it’s e-learning or getting STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] skills. So, I’m just really hopeful that we can reach as many young girls and as many young advocates as possible.”
This is all admirable, but one of the problems for the education of women in the Arab world, for instance, goes beyond school. Universities can remain male bastions, women can find it hard to get work in the private sector. Will this initiative have a halo effect there?
Malala explains that’s not the immediate emphasis. “There has been a focus on education, but only on primary education. And there are many countries and leaders who are supporting university level education as well through scholarships. But there’s a huge gap in secondary education. So, allowing girls to have primary education is important, but if the secondary education is missing, girls don’t have access to university level education.
“But, yes, once you give them quality 12 years of education, you allow them to explore ways in which they want to work. You allow them to explore what they’re passionate about and what dreams they have and what they want to do in life.”
I wonder if this is an example of the varying social responsibilities of governments and companies. Is this something a government couldn’t manage?
Mr Cook again: “I think it’s one of those things that will have the best results if government joins us. It needs all of us rowing in the same direction. I don’t see it as a substitute because we’re not going to build all the schools that are needed and so forth. So, government is essential in this. You know, Malala has been a tireless advocate with many different state leaders on the subject. I think what I’m feeling more every day is there’s clearly some things in life that only government can do.
“There’s some things that only private companies can do. There are some things perhaps that only non-government organisations can do. But the bigger issues in the world, it really takes everybody. I would say this is one of the big issues in the world.”
Malala adds: “The local advocates we are supporting, the Gulmakai Network of educators, are campaigning, for instance, in Nigeria to make sure the government declares 12 years of education compulsory for all children rather than nine years. They’re doing work locally in their community teaching to as many girls as possible. But then they are also talking to their local and national leaders.”
Gender equality in countries like the UK and US involves a series of different issues, such as the pay gap, gender imbalances and so on. What is Apple doing about that? Mr Cook explains that Apple is working on making coding, for example, more available in schools at every level.
“I see it as a key responsibility for all companies and not only in their hiring practices and employment practices and so forth. But if there are fewer women graduating in the majors that you generally recruit in, like computer science and so forth, I see it as a responsibility of companies to figure out how to change that.
“You can’t just focus on the end, and say, ‘Oh, we can’t because there’s not enough women in the key majors.’ That’s really a cop-out. I personally feel, and Apple feels, a responsibility much higher than that.
“For coding, we’ve focused on this all the way back to early school, first, second, third grade and upwards. And in community colleges because we know that adults need to be retrained. Malala’s vision is very tied to this because there are so many girls in the world that are never making it through primary. I see this as part of our effort of changing the fundamental dynamics in the education system.
“There are different issues in the US and the UK than the ones we’re talking about today. But maybe at the root there are a lot of things that are similar. At the root what it comes back to is: is everyone treated with dignity and respect, is everyone really treated as an equal and does everyone have access to quality education so that they can be the best that they can be in whatever field? Too many times in society the answer to those questions are a bunch of nos. So it feels great to be a part of this. A really bold and ambitious vision.”
This was a flying visit but they took tea with a family in Tarik al Jadida, Beirut. The Trawi family has three teenage girls, Muslim Sunnites, who go to school in Ashrafieh, a part of Beirut some distance from their modest home. It’s a Christian school and they go there because it’s considered the best school.
Mr Cook and Malala ask the girls what they want to be (an actress, one replies) and their favourite sports (swimming is popular). And they ask if a woman could ever be CEO of Apple. Mr Cook is quick to say, yes, and points out that female senior executives at Apple include Lisa Jackson, vice-president of environment, policy and social initiatives, who previously ran the Environment Protection Agency for President Obama.
Tea is followed by a round-table discussion at the Lebanese Alternative Learning centre in central Beirut, an NGO established by Nagi Ghorra and Nayla Fahed in 2013, offering educational resources. This includes a neat little box containing a basic computer and wi-fi hotspot. It has the learning content on a memory card and can share it with up to 30 tablets or computers at a time. It can be powered by a rechargeable battery, so in areas where no wi-fi or no electricity can be relied on, classes can still take place.
A dozen girls sit in the main room of the centre awaiting the mystery guests. When they learn Malala is among them, the atmosphere is electric, some bursting into tears in their excitement. When Malala arrives, one girl sobs in disbelief again, prompting a hug and encouraging words from the Nobel prize winner.
As the session continues, they find their voices, in one case even breaking into song, enchanting the group and Mr Cook, who is clearly touched. One girl talks of her desire for Lebanon to be the best it can, another, originally from Syria, describes her hopes for her home country to find peace.
At the end, the girls ask for photographs. I’ve seen Mr Cook in this situation before, mobbed by adoring fans. But today, it’s Malala they want for their selfies. Mr Cook, for once, stands on his own, beaming, content to bask in her reflected glory.
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