Salesforce’s Marc Benioff urges fellow CEOs to be activists
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Salesforce CRM,
Founder Marc Benioff oversees a $ 130 billion software empire from a 62-story skyscraper that towers over everything else in San Francisco. But he’s uncomfortable on his high perch due to the deepening economic divide in the streets below, where lavish wages paid to tech workers like his deprive many people of affordable housing. .
He therefore urges his fellow CEOs to help mend a “train wreck” of inequalities that his industry has helped create. He wants them to take a stand on homelessness, along with other polarizing issues such as gay rights, climate change and gun control, to fill what he sees as a leadership vacuum. that paralyzes the government in times of crisis.
Benioff attributes much of the company’s current problems to “CEOs who fell asleep at the wheel.”
In an upcoming book, “Trailblazer,” due October 15, Benioff calls on activist CEOs to lead a revolution that puts the well-being of people and the planet before profits.
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“We’re at a point where CEOs recognize they just can’t be for their shareholders,” Benioff said in an interview. “They must be for all their stakeholders, whether it is for their schools, whether it is for the environment, whether it is for the fundamental equality of every human being.
But skeptics wonder if his brash call to action is just another exercise in self-promotion that he perfected under the leadership of his former boss, the flamboyant Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
Another nagging question: Should we trust a billionaire who has pushed technology to wealth and fame to help solve the problems his industry has exacerbated?
Critics argue it’s a bad idea, especially as CEOs become more and more economically isolated from the rest of society. Even in a booming tech company like Salesforce, a worker earning an average annual income of $ 152,000 would need nearly two centuries to match Benioff’s $ 28.4 million salary last year.
With an estimated fortune of $ 6 billion, Benioff lives in a mansion overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and owns a five-acre resort on the Big Island of Hawaii, where he says he can clear his head swimming with it. dolphins and whales. He bought Time magazine last year for $ 190 million and has his name on children’s hospitals, a legacy of the more than $ 300 million that Benioff and his wife, Lynne, have given to these institutions.
Relying on the privileged classes to set the social agenda during a period of division is tantamount to colonialism against which the United States revolted in 1776, warned Chiara Cordelli, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
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“Even though they are very well intentioned, they are so powerful that the question arises as to whether they should have that kind of voice,” Cordelli said. “The more they do the work of government on their own, the more reason we will have to question whether we should trust the government.”
Benioff has also alienated himself from other top tech executives with his sometimes blunt critiques of tech companies that focus on consumer services, a mass market that’s well outside the realm of Salesforce.
Salesforce’s niche is building software that manages customer relationships for businesses and government agencies. As a result, the company is immune to the scrutiny Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple face over addictive products that scrutinize people’s lives while promoting lies, prejudice and violence.
Benioff fans insist he really wants to point CEOs in a new direction.
“Marc’s heart rules his head,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom, who befriended Benioff about 15 years ago when Newsom was mayor of San Francisco. “You could almost expect him to be the first on an issue.”
And people tend to follow Benioff like he’s a rock star, said Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, himself a rock star.
“He’s got this very organic magnetism,” said Ulrich, who has been friends with Benioff since they met at a dinner party a decade ago. “I think a lot of tech CEOs see him almost as a spiritual leader.”
Like many Silicon Valley billionaires, Benioff, 55, started out as a prototypical geek.
He started taking apart and reassembling his family’s phone at the age of 4 and spent most of his teenage years learning to program computers. He earned over $ 5,000 from the video games he made in high school.
Unlike many other programming prodigies, Benioff completed his college education and earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Southern California. He is also deeply rooted in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, where his family has lived since his paternal great-grandfather immigrated in the late 19th century from Kiev, then part of Russia.
He thanks his father, Russell, who owned a chain of clothing stores, for teaching him the value of hard work. He thanks his maternal grandfather, Marvin Lewis, who served on the San Francisco board of directors, for teaching him civic service. As a successful lawyer, Lewis was wealthy enough to hand out $ 20 bills to needy strangers.
After earning his first million dollars as a rising star at software company Oracle, Benioff felt dissatisfied and took a sabbatical, with Ellison’s blessing. This led him on a spiritual journey to India, retracing the path taken by Steve Jobs, with whom he befriended in 1984 while working as an intern at Apple. Benioff left with his friend, venture capitalist Arjun Gupta, in 1996 and met a guru. Mata Amritanandamayi, known as the “saint of hugs,” urged the two to always remember to do something for others.
“From this very early stage he was very spiritual and his leadership was very values oriented,” Gupta said. “And he was already thinking about how business can’t just be business, but business can be a platform for good.”
Benioff’s experience in India left a deep impression. So much so that when he launched Salesforce in 1999, he made the unprecedented decision to dedicate 1% of the company’s products, inventory and workforce to charity. Salesforce says it has donated more than $ 285 million and 4 million hours of employee time to 42,000 nonprofits and schools. About 8,500 other companies, including Google, have since adopted similar philanthropic weapons.
It wasn’t until 2015, however, that Benioff transitioned from philanthropy to social activism. He led a charge against then Indiana Governor Mike Pence over a law allowing companies to cite religion as a legal defense against allegations of LGBT discrimination. As other companies and groups joined in Benioff’s threats to restrict operations and travel in the state, the Pence and Indiana legislatures relaxed the law.
“I was very scared before I took this action in Indiana,” Benioff said. “CEOs can freeze in fear. We are no different from others. But you have to find the courage of your convictions.
Since then, Benioff has spoken out against Georgia and North Carolina for passing laws that would allow LGBT discrimination. PayPal CEO Dan Schulman followed suit and canceled plans for an operations center in North Carolina.
Benioff was also outspoken about the need for a national privacy law to prevent technology from digging deeper into people’s lives. He particularly criticized Facebook, which he ridiculed as society’s smallpox similar to cancer-causing cigarettes.
And last year, he argued publicly with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey over a corporate payroll tax in San Francisco to raise money for programs for the homeless. Benioff campaigned for the tax, even though Salesforce is San Francisco’s biggest employer. Dorsey opposed it, as did San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
In addition to seeking higher taxes, Benioff recently decided to stop selling his software to retailers that sell military-style rifles in their stores.
All of this costs Salesforce money and reduces profits – a financial sacrifice Benioff shouldn’t make as CEO, said Justin Danhof of the Free Enterprise Project, a group of conservative activist shareholders.
“He uses the economic power of Salesforce to advance his cultural position and advance his worldview with impunity,” said Danhof. “If you think of him as an investor, he is literally giving money to advance his social agenda.”
Danhof ridiculed Benioff as “a social engineer acting as CEO”.
Even Bill Gates wonders if business leaders should be more than stewards of capitalism. Gates, who stepped down as Microsoft CEO nearly 20 years ago to focus on donating a fortune worth $ 105 billion, said such activism could make the place of uncomfortable work for those who disagree.
“Being an activist CEO can have limits because you may want to employ people from multiple political parties,” Gates said in an interview.
Still, there are signs that the work of CEOs is expanding beyond its traditional goal of increasing company profits and stock prices.
The Business Roundtable, a group representing CEOs of American companies, recently released principles emphasizing the need to start thinking about society as a whole. After a wave of mass shootings, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon has taken a stand for tighter gun control by limiting sales of ammunition in his stores. And 145 CEOs, including executives at Twitter and Yelp, called on Congress to impose stricter background checks on gun purchases and allow courts to remove firearms from people flagged as potential threats.
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman thanks Benioff, whom he considers a “Papa Bear,” for encouraging him to take a stand. “He’s been a leading voice in the idea that CEOs don’t have to play neutral,” Stoppelman said.
Benioff’s willingness to take risks is one of the reasons Newsom asked Benioff to be his daughter’s godfather.
“You wanna give a fuck,” Newsom said. “You want to take paths that others don’t want to take and, you know, you want to be meaningful in life.”
Although Benioff appointed a co-CEO last year to free up time to do even more outside of Salesforce, Benioff insists on pushing for change as an activist CEO rather than running for political office.
“It’s a huge platform to inspire people to do the right thing,” Benioff said. “That’s all we can do, while still enjoying every moment of life.”