Tim Cook: The education and inspiring beginnings of Apple’s CEO

SOURCE: Stephanie Keith / Getty Images / AFP
Tim Cook's success story is one for the ages, but did you know that his academic career was just as illustrious as his professional one?

By Shekinah Kannan 

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After the untimely passing of the iconic Steve Jobs, all eyes were on Apple as they searched for a new CEO. Soon after, the focus shifted to Tim Cook when he took over leadership of Apple. Many questioned his ability to fill the shoes of Jobs and take Apple to greater heights, but he’s proved them all wrong. 

His history and accomplishments with the tech powerhouse go back long before assuming the role of CEO in 2011. After over a decade at IBM, Cook worked at Compaq, serving as vice president for corporate materials. While there, he was recruited by Jobs in 1998. 

Accepting was a bold move, especially since Apple was in a poor state at the time. Compaq, on the other hand, was thriving. However, all it took was minutes in a room with Jobs for Cook to realise his calling to join the company – and contribute to its resurrection. 

With Cook’s help, the company cut costs, made strategic investments, and regained its financial stability. When Jobs’ health was visibly deteriorating, Cooks filled in where he could – running the company while Jobs continued to make its decisions. 

When Jobs lost his battle to pancreatic cancer in 2011 – Cook took on the role of CEO full-time. 


A decade has passed and the world has noticed that Cook has led the company forward in ways unimaginable. Ten years ago, Apple offered its consumer two iPhones and an iPad. Today, customers can take their pick from seven iPhones and five iPads. Even in light of economic uncertainty due to the pandemic, Apple reported record-breaking revenue of US$111 billion for the previous quarter. 

It’s a success story for the ages, but did you know that his academic career was just as illustrious as his professional one? Let’s go back to the beginning to see what made Cook the leader, innovator and visionary he is today. 

Tim Cook was named “most studious” in high school

Cook’s parents Geraldine and Don Cook decided to settle down in the small town of Robertsdale so their three sons could attend the same school. Here, all three would work part-time jobs. For Cook, it was delivering newspapers. He later worked at a restaurant and then at the same drugstore as his mother. 

During his time at Robertsdale High School, he played trombone in the band and served on the yearbook staff. Barbara Davis, his former math teacher, described him as “always meticulous with his work,” stating that she always “knew it would be done right.”

His efforts even earned him the title of “most studious” in both sophomore and freshman year. “He is the pride and joy of our town,” Susie Kendrick Vivar, a former classmate, tells “We’re all very proud to say that he lived here.”

He majored in industrial engineering

Cook’s love for Auburn University developed in 1971. He was just 11 when he would listen to Auburn football games on the radio. In 1978, after graduating from Robertsdale High School, he enrolled. In 1982, he graduated from the university of his dreams with a degree in industrial engineering. 

“Ever since he was in the seventh grade he said, ‘I want to go to Auburn some way or another,’” his mother said. In a 2010 commencement speech at the university, Cook famously said, “Some decisions are pretty obvious.”

At Auburn, he played intramural softball; worked on UPC; selected entertainment and showed movies at Langdon Hall.

Over the years, he’s looked forward to going back and addressing students. In fact, he’s done it numerous times –– each time, expressing the school spirit he felt as a child.

“There is no place in the world I’d rather be than here,” Cook told students. “Brings back a lot of memories. I often think that Auburn is really not a place, it’s a feeling and a spirit. Fortunately, it is with you for all the days of your life. It has been for me at least.” 


He’s an MBA

After graduating from Auburn, Cook began his 12-year journey at IBM but that didn’t stop him from furthering his education. At the same time, he earned his MBA from Duke University, becoming a Fuqua Scholar in 1988. 

Bill Boulding, Dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, describes his relationship with Cook as one that is “personally special.”

Boulding was an educator when he had first met Cook, but the tables quickly turned when he first stepped into the role as dean. He reached out to Cook for advice on how to handle the responsibility. 

“In all seriousness, while it would be flattering to think that the MBA curriculum was the genesis of Tim becoming the authentic leader he is today, in reality, much of Tim’s success lies in his ability to learn from a wide variety of people and the value he places in gaining insights from perspectives very different from his own,” Boulding tells LinkedIn. “In fact, it is Tim who has taught me.”