Apple’s Lisa Jackson Is Blazing a Path for Tech Companies to Do Better

Apple’s Lisa Jackson Is Blazing a Path for Tech Companies to Do Better

June 8, 2021

The line between want and need is thinner than a microchip and, depending on the brand, often depends on one. That’s the Tao of Cupertino, California, where the electronic device that’s likely letting you scan this story or make your next Hot Girl Summer purchase was made. Maybe you’re scrolling on the new purple iPhone (oooh); maybe you’re sliding your iMac mouse across your desk. Either way, there are 1.65 billion active Apple devices in the world, so the odds are high one exists in yours. But how do they exist in the world? Not the “black mirror” to our Instagram Narcissus, or even the avatar to our #HPWorld Narcissa, but the real stuff—the air and water and soil? As Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives, Lisa Jackson knows that our future depends on that answer. Which means we depend on Lisa Jackson, even if we don’t know it yet.

“I’m really, at my core, just an engineer,” she laughs from her home near San Francisco. It’s got a spiked chamomile vibe, much like Jackson herself, who is calm but gets gleeful talking science. “Engineers are taught in school that all we are is someone who identifies a problem and uses math to solve it. So technology is an entire sector that’s built on innovation and newness. That’s our problem. The solution to that problem can’t be, ‘Tech cannot exist, because we don’t think you’re good to the planet.’ If it is, we are suffering from an incredible lack of imagination and innovation … and technology is known for innovation. So how can we take that strength and use it on behalf of the planet?”

She’s off to a strong start. Before landing at Apple in 2013, Jackson made history as the first-ever Black Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Obama administration; while there, they recognized greenhouse gasses as a public health threat and made carbon emission reduction a national mandate. Jackson has made even swifter reforms at Apple, pushing the brand to pledge 100 percent of its rare earth metals are reused and 40 percent of their computer retina displays are made with recycled materials. She’s guided a more seamless trade-in program at the retail level, with direct recycling silos to reduce energy waste. Some phone backings will be made with upcycled wood pulp. They will be entirely carbon neutral—hopefully even carbon negative—within 10 years. “They said it was impossible, and I was like, ‘Being better is always possible!’” she laughs. “I believe you should be able to have the latest, newest device. But it should not be made with new materials. … To me, that’s where the hard work is.”

And the 59-year-old Aquarius has never been afraid of hard work. A star student at her all-girls Catholic school, the New Orleans native initially thought she’d be a doctor. “When you’re a gifted kid in the Black community, people push you towards the hard stuff … and in my community, not too many people had gone to college, so doctor was the thing to be,” Jackson says. “But I was really good at math and science—and I was at an all-girls school, so that took away a lot of the stereotypes and pressure. Nobody said, ‘Girls can’t do math,’ because we were all girls! My teachers pushed me hard.”

Straight A’s led to engineering camp at Tulane, which eventually offered her a full engineering scholarship. “It was the ’80s,” she says. “And I didn’t know what environmental engineering was. But I’ll never forget the day I became one. We drank Mississippi river water down there at school, and in chem class, they told us we’d been drinking hundreds of carcinogens, and we didn’t even know it. That really got me.”

Technology is known for innovation. So how can we take that strength and use it on behalf of the planet?

Jackson also interned at Shell Corporation—and in a twist worthy of Trevor Noah, the company was sponsoring the future eco-warrior’s scholarship. “Then I’d come back to school, and we’d do these equations with something called a process flow diagram,” she explains. “It’s a bunch of arrows that shows how vapor moves, how liquids move—basically, where your chemicals are going during a reaction. And there would always—always!—be one arrow that would go completely off the page. When I realized ‘off the page’ was air emissions, water emissions, [or] sludge going to somebody’s landfill, I was upset. I said, ‘Look, isn’t it weird we’re designing these processes, but we’re not taking responsibility for the things that end up in somebody’s yard?!’ I started to think a chemical engineer can’t just make stuff. We need to be responsible for the stuff.”

“Be responsible for the stuff” remains a low-key credo for Jackson’s daily work, but she also realized that being reliable for people was just as crucial. The lesson started with Love Canal, the infamous toxic town in Niagara Falls, New York, where chemicals in the playgrounds were so intense, the EPA reported that “children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.”

“There aren’t too many jobs in public service where you actually interact with the community, and the community actually needs you,” she says. “You show up at a site, and they’re looking at you like, ‘You are my only hope. My kid is not well. I don’t feel well. My house is no longer worth what it was. I’m sick. I’m scared.’ They had already been relocated once, they needed new homes, and I needed to make it happen quickly. I could not let these people down. And I remember, I thought, ‘I couldn’t have been a doctor. Environmental science can save so many more people. This is where I need to be.’”

Jackson credits her mentor, EPA Director George Pavlou, with pushing her toward field work, which allowed her to use what she calls “a bedside manner” in tandem with her chemical engineering skills. “When you’re solving a new problem, your first job is to listen,” Jackson explains. “That was true then, and it’s true now. And it’s partly because asking someone, ‘How are you feeling? How can I help you?’ is the most human, most important thing you can do for someone who’s scared. But also, listening is so important from a scientific standpoint. The people affected by chemical disasters could tell us, ‘This is where my plants died. This is where I saw guys coming at night with barrels, and this is where they disappeared.’ You never want to dismiss someone affected by an issue just because you’re ‘the expert.’ They’ve lived the issue, and there’s always expertise in that.”

When you’re solving a new problem, your first job is to listen.

In 2005, Jackson went to visit her mother, Marie Perez, in her hometown of New Orleans. It was Perez’s birthday, and she’d just been released from the hospital. “She’d kill me if she knew I was telling you this,” Jackson smiles wryly, “but she was there because of complications with diabetes, which is a whole epidemic in the [Black] community. But if it helps just one person understand how important it is to check in with their doctor about diabetes early, it’s worth it for me to tell you.” Jackson and her brother were leaving their mother’s birthday dinner when they saw news of a hurricane—yes, the hurricane that went on to decimate New Orleans—on TV. “At first, she refused to leave the house. … She [had] just left the hospital. She was tired. She was sad. … Eventually, I had to pack her a bag—goofy stuff and what I thought was the deed to the house—really fast and put her in the car. I drove her out of New Orleans right before the levees broke. … It felt like it all happened in slow motion. … I didn’t take photos or important papers, nothing. And that’s the last time I saw anything in our house. That was it. Gone.” Suddenly, Jackson went from helping Americans affected by pollution to becoming one herself, adding the lived experience of catastrophic climate change to her hard-won hours in the geometric quiet of a science lab.

It’s the combination of those experiences—plus the god-grace of being a brilliant young woman in a high school that encouraged STEM study—that’s fueling Jackson’s next Apple project: a series of initiatives building a better pipeline to the top of the tech world. “Last summer was tragic,” she says. “George Floyd got killed. Breonna Taylor before him. And so many more lives lost because of their race. The outpouring of frustration turned into a question: ‘What can we do to make this world more equitable? Here are these persistent, systemic injustices caused by race. How do we show up as a force for good?’ So that’s the question.”

Jackson modeled the project—the Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI), often called “Reggie”—after her environmental initiatives. “One, we want to focus on education, because your zip code so often determines your success more than anything else. Two, we want to have bigger conversations and solutions for criminal justice. We’re mindful our products play a role in illuminating that injustice. And three, economic empowerment. We’re a company that spends hundreds of billions in the U.S. [on corporate] services and supplies. Shouldn’t that money go into communities and businesses that need and deserve that economic boost?” Under the supervision of Jackson’s “amazing, kick-ass team of incredible women—and some men too,” Apple is building the Propel Center, an Atlanta educational campus for HBCU students interested in engineering. They’re also creating the first app development center in the country, and doing it in the scraps-to-riches center of Detroit.

We’re a company that spends hundreds of billions in the U.S. [on corporate] services and supplies. Shouldn’t that money go into communities and businesses that need and deserve that economic boost?

It’s an ambitious but warranted program, made even more astounding by the fact that Jackson is leading it and her environmental push too. “But that goes back to listening,” she insists. “My job is to listen first, then collaborate on a plan of action. Same as when I was at the White House. Same as when I was at the EPA.”

I ask her how she learned to listen for the things that matter when so much—statistics, personal stories, budgets, chemical formulas—lands on her desk, all of it important. “So often when I was coming up, women were underestimated,” she answers. “Black people were underestimated. And probably, I learned at some early age that it’s better to be quiet and really understand the room before speaking up. … It taught me how to be 10 times more prepared before suggesting a possible course of action? A guy would say something, and it was a wild-ass idea. I say the same thing, and I’d just be wrong. … To be honest, I hope younger women in the workforce don’t feel this way at all. But I did, because of the time I came up in. And I became known for just sitting, taking notes, thinking, and then finally, when I had something to say,” she laughs, “it was the thing to say!”

Like Yoda? I ask.

“The female Yoda!” she exclaims. “Is there Girl Yoda? Should we make a Girl Yoda series [for Apple TV+], or would we get in trouble with Disney?” Probably. But like a tech company that’s turned obsolete products into soil-saving mini mines, it seems like anything’s possible.

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