There's no hotter ticket in Washington tonight than a seat in the first lady's box at the State of the Union. The Heroes Gallery, as it is sometimes referred to, has been used by presidents to highlight the values or policies their administration is backing.
That's what makes the invitation given to Laurene Powell Jobs so unusual. Most well-known as wife of recently deceased Apple founder Steve Jobs, the bio sent out to reporters by the White House Press Office only mentions education reform work and the boards she sits on. Her late husband doesn't even get a mention. That may be because the Obama administration hopes to mention Powell Jobs' education foundations while ignoring the new attention being paid to how Apple and other high tech companies have benefited enormously from lax Chinese labor standards and the outsourcing manufacturing jobs.
The White House did not respond to questions about the omission. Powell Jobs could not be reached for comment.
The issues surrounding Apple's manufacturing process were brought to the fore in two recent investigations, the first from This American Life. It devoted its entire hour-long show on Jan. 6 to the story of Mike Daisey's trip to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. That's where the iPhone and many other Apple products are assembled -- largely by hand, Daisey found -- by an army of overworked, exploited Chinese migrants. He met underage workers, employees crippled by deplorable working conditions, and blacklisted union organizers. The whole thing is worth a listen.
Apple refused to comment for the story, but the following week issued two key changes to increase "transparency and independent oversight" in its manufacturing process in its annual Supplier Responsibility Progress Report. The study, which normally comes out in February, was published nearly a month ahead of schedule, This American Life noted.
The second round of bad publicity for Apple came from the New York Times. It looked at "why almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas." The exhaustive investigation, published Jan. 21, opens with a question President Obama posed to the late Apple founder at February dinner with Silicon Valley executives:
Why can't that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.
Mr. Jobs's reply was unambiguous. "Those jobs aren't coming back," he said, according to another dinner guest.
Powell Jobs may be doing many great things to educate young people in underserved communities -- we are likely to hear all about them in Obama's speech tonight. But President Obama will likely be loath to point out that many of the middle class manufacturing jobs that those children may have once hoped to fill after graduating college are now being done by kids their age in China.
Here's her full bio from the State of the Union press release:
Laurene Powell Jobs
Founder and Chair of Emerson Collective
Palo Alto, California
Ms. Laurene Powell Jobs is founder and chair of Emerson Collective, an organization focused on harnessing the potential of individuals from underserved communities to help them build a better life.
Ms. Powell Jobs also serves as president of the board of College Track, an after-school program she founded in 1997 to prepare underserved high school students for success in college. Started in East Palo Alto, College Track has expanded to serve students in Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans and Aurora, Colorado. The program's intensive academic and extracurricular program is designed to ensure admittance to and graduation from college. All of the program's graduates have completed their secondary education and gone on to college.
In addition to her work with the Emerson Collective and College Track, she serves on the boards of directors of NewSchools Venture Fund, New America Foundation and Conservation International. She also serves as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ms. Powell Jobs holds a BA and a BSE from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Earlier in her career, she spent several years working in investment banking and later co-founded a natural foods company in California.