SAN FRANCISCO — Salesforce founder Marc Benioff oversees a $130 billion software empire from a 62-story skyscraper that towers above everything else in San Francisco. But he sits uneasily in his lofty perch because of a worsening economic divide on the streets below, where the lavish pay doled out to tech workers like his are pricing many people out of housing.
So he’s urging fellow chief executive officers to help fix a “train wreck” of inequality his industry 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 considers a leadership void that is paralyzing government in times of crisis.
Benioff blames much of society’s current troubles on “CEOs who have been asleep at the wheel.”
In a forthcoming book, Trailblazer, due out Oct. 15, Benioff calls on activist CEOs to lead a revolution that puts the welfare of people and the planet ahead of profits.
“We are at a point where CEOs recognize that they just can’t be for their shareholders,” Benioff said in an interview. “They have to be for all their stakeholders, whether it’s for their schools, whether it’s for the environment, whether it’s for the fundamental equality for every human being.”
But skeptics wonder if his brash call for action is just another exercise in self-promotional showmanship he honed under his former boss, Oracle’s flamboyant founder, Larry Ellison.
Another nagging question: Should a billionaire who rode technology to wealth and fame be trusted to help fix the problems his industry has exacerbated?
Critics contend that’s a bad idea, particularly as CEOs become ever more isolated economically from the rest of society. Even at a booming tech company such as Salesforce, a worker making the average annual income of $152,000 would need nearly two centuries to match Benioff’s $28.4 million pay package last year.
With a fortune estimated at $6 billion, Benioff lives in a mansion looking out on the Golden Gate Bridge and owns a 5-acre compound on Hawaii’s Big Island, where he says he can clear his mind while swimming with 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 donated to those institutions.
Relying on the privileged classes to set the social agenda during divisive times hearkens back to the colonialism that the U.S. revolted against in 1776, warned Chiara Cordelli, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.
“Even if they are very well intentioned, they are so powerful it becomes a question of whether they should have this kind of voice,” Cordelli said. “The more they do the work of government by themselves, the more reasons we will have to wonder whether we should trust government.”
Benioff also has alienated other prominent tech executives with his sometimes-blunt criticism directed at tech companies that focus on consumer services, a mass market that is far outside of Salesforce’s realm.
Salesforce’s niche is making software that manages customer relationships for businesses and government agencies. Consequently, the company is insulated from the intense scrutiny facing the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.
Benioff’s fans insist he genuinely wants to steer CEOs in a new direction.
“Marc’s heart leads his head,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who befriended Benioff about 15 years ago while Newsom was San Francisco’s mayor. “You could almost anticipate he’ll be the first on an issue.”
And people tend to follow Benioff, as though he’s a rock star, said Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, a rock star himself.
“He has this very organic magnetism,” said Ulrich, who has been friends with Benioff since they met at a dinner party about a decade ago. “I think a lot of tech CEOs almost look to him as a spiritual leader.”
In 2015, Benioff stepped beyond philanthropy into social activism. He led a charge against then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence over a law that allowed businesses to cite religion as a legal defense against claims of gay discrimination. As other companies and groups joined Benioff’s threats to curb operations and travel in the state, Pence and Indiana’s Legislature softened the law.
“I had a lot of fear before I took that action in Indiana,” Benioff said. “CEOs can get frozen in fear. We are no different from anybody else. 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 gay and transgender discrimination. PayPal CEO Dan Schulman followed suit and canceled plans for an operations center in North Carolina.
Benioff also has been outspoken on the need for a national privacy law to prevent technology from digging deeper into people’s lives. He has been especially critical of Facebook, which he has derided as a pox on society akin to cancer-causing cigarettes.
And last year, he feuded publicly with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey over a payroll tax on San Francisco companies to raise money for homeless programs. Benioff campaigned for the tax, even though Salesforce is San Francisco’s biggest employer. Dorsey opposed it, along with San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
There are signs that the job of CEOs is extending beyond its traditional focus on increasing corporate profits and stock prices.
The Business Roundtable, a group representing corporate America’s CEOs, recently released principles emphasizing the need to start thinking about society at large. After a wave of mass shootings, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon took a stand for stricter gun control by curbing ammunition sales in his stores. And 145 CEOs, including the leaders of Twitter and Yelp, called on Congress to pass tougher background checks on gun purchases and enable courts to remove firearms from people flagged as potential threats.
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman credits Benioff, whom he views as a “Papa Bear,” for encouraging him to take a stand. “He has been a leading voice in the idea that CEOs don’t have to play neutral,” Stoppelman said.
Information for this article was contributed by Mark Kennedy of The Associated Press.
Business on 10/05/2019