He frequently tells the story of his supposed inspiration for founding Salesforce. Despite success at Oracle, where he worked early in his career, Mr Benioff was plagued with existential doubt, prompting him to take a sabbatical in southern India. There he visited a woman known as “the Holy Embrace”, who urged him to share in her prosperity.
Upon the incorporation of Salesforce in 1999, Mr. Benioff pledged to dedicate 1% of his capital and proceeds to philanthropic endeavors, while encouraging employees to dedicate 1% of their work time to volunteer efforts. . Salesforce employees regularly volunteer at schools, food banks, and hospitals.
“There are very few examples of companies doing this on a large scale,” Mr. Benioff told me in an interview. He noted that people always tell him about another company known for its goal of doing good, Ben & Jerry’s. He said this with a chuckle, clearly amused that his business — now worth more than $200 billion — could be compared to the aging Vermont hippies who brought Cherry Garcia ice cream to the world.
Mr. Benioff is, in many ways, a true believer, not just pointlessly repeating Davos Man talking points. In 2015, when Indiana passed legislation that would have allowed companies to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender employees, it threatened to pull the investments, forcing a change in the law. He shamed Facebook and Google for abusing the public trust and called for regulations on the search and social media giants. Early in the pandemic, Salesforce embraced remote work to protect employees.
“I try to influence others to do the right thing,” he told me. “I feel that responsibility.”
I found myself won over by his childlike enthusiasm and willingness to speak at length in the absence of public relations specialists – a rarity for Silicon Valley.
His philanthropic efforts aim to reduce homelessness in San Francisco, while expanding health care for children. He and Salesforce collectively contributed $7 million to a successful campaign in 2018 for a local ballot measure that levied new taxes on San Francisco businesses to fund expanded programs. The new taxes would likely cost Salesforce $10 million a year.
It sounded like a lot of money, ostensible proof of a socially conscious CEO sacrificing the bottom line in the interest of serving society’s needs. But that was less than a trifle next to the money Salesforce withheld from the government through legal tax subterfuge.