Technology

Tech’s woke CEO takes the stage

Salesforce founder Marc Benioff wants to break up Facebook, has pushed for higher taxes on his industry and says capitalism ‘as we know it’ is over. And Washington is listening.

Marc Benioff

“We’re very pleased today to have Marc Benioff, who’s the —,” begins David Rubenstein, the president of the Economic Club of Washington D.C., during a lunch event at a downtown Marriott.

But nine seconds into his on-stage introduction, Benioff has thoughts he’d like to share. “I never know how to sit in these chairs,” he interjects, as Rubenstein attempts to lay out Benioff’s bona fides as the multibillionaire founder and co-CEO of the business software giant Salesforce. Benioff, 55, settles his hulking frame into his modernist leather chair while splaying his paw-like hands wide. “You’re doing a pretty good job,” tries Rubenstein. Benioff, though, is on a roll. “Do I do like his?” he says, leaning back. “Or do I go, like, the Trump?” — shifting to the edge of his seat in the manner of the current president of the United States.

“Whatever makes you feel most comfortable,” responds Rubenstein, a fellow billionaire left looking, for a moment, as if he’s watching a suit-wearing bear attempt to nail a graceful seated position.

The mid-October appearance was some Washingtonians’ first introduction to Benioff, a man who’s taking up space on a lot of stages these days. And his message — lambasting his own industry’s hunger for growth at all costs, comparing Facebook to the tobacco companies, proclaiming the death of capitalism “as we know it” — is drawing notice among political leaders hungering for a Mark Zuckerberg alternative.

On Nov. 21, the onetime Republican interviewed former President Barack Obama on stage in San Francisco, where Benioff’s company lured an estimated 170,000-plus people to a four-day conference that shut down streets in part of the city. Benioff has also become a yearly fixture at the elite business-and-celeb confab in Davos, Switzerland, including an appearance last year where he called out Uber as an example of tech companies that sacrifice the trust of their employees and users at the altar of growth.

Other tech CEOs, like Facebook’s Zuckerberg, appear to shrink in the political spotlight. Benioff seems to expand — fedora-wearing, 6-foot-5, human, sometimes a little sweaty around the margins. (In his new book, he likens himself to a "giant.") He’s a politically skilled chief executive in an industry whose leaders often appear diffident and tone-deaf during their forays to Congress or the White House.

But to hear him tell it, Benioff is still a stranger in the buttoned-down nation’s capital, with no political aspirations beyond trying to make the world a more equitable place. He says he’s more at home in Hawaii, where he has an estate. Or in his native San Francisco, where his 61-story Salesforce Tower looms over the city’s horizon, the second-tallest building west of the Mississippi.

“I feel like when I go to Washington, D.C., it’s like going to another planet,” he says by phone in the days leading up to the trip. This, even though he once held a tech advisory post in the George W. Bush administration and co-owns Time magazine with his wife, Lynne.

“I’m not a Republican or a Democrat,” says Benioff, who indeed gave more than $1.2 million to both parties in the past two decades before swearing off all campaign contributions earlier this year. (Donations to Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Jay Inslee, as well as House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, made it in under the wire.)

He adds, “I view myself very much just as an American” — one committed to using whatever platform he can to imprint the social-justice values that have, for two decades, powered Salesforce to enormous success.

“That’s what I’m doing every day,” Benioff says. “Leading with those values.”

What drives Benioff? To hear him tell it, as a young, disillusioned Oracle executive on an obligatory trip to an Indian ashram, he came to see that success in the business world was worthwhile only if married to improving the world, and he’s since dedicated his enormous fortune — some $6.9 billion by one recent count — to proving the point.

Others say that as the fourth generation of his family to grow up in San Francisco, he’s become angry over what he’s witnessed the tech industry do to his city.

Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from Silicon Valley who has received Benioff’s backing, describes him as the rare tech executive who sees his worldly success not simply as the product his own creativity but of a system that deemed him a winner while leaving scores of other behind. That, says Khanna, has made Benioff an “iconoclast” among the billionaire class. It has also made him the target of quiet ire in the tech industry, often organized along the lines of, well, it’s easy for Marc Benioff to say.

Plenty of tech executives talk about making the world a better place; few throw their whole bodies into it. Asked if religion is motivating him, he responds: “No, this is just modern values. And, you know, I’m trying to improve the world using my platform. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

The short version of Benioff’s modern values: People should have a place to live, a good education in a safe school, good health care and a clean environment, and not face discrimination for their sexual orientation or gender. And one way to get there, he argues, is for corporations to do right by not just their shareholders but their customers, their employees and the whole planet.

Perhaps no slice of the corporate world needs to hear that more, he suggests, than Silicon Valley, even if that kind of talk alarms his fellow business elites. (CNBC accused him of delivering a “tirade” after he criticized Uber’s corporate leadership last year in Davos.)

Capitalism, argues Benioff, should hurt capitalists a bit. It should cost something. Salesforce has since its founding given 1 percent of its products, equity, and employee time to philanthropy. “From Day One he’s recognized that business has a broader purpose,” says Steve Case, the AOL co-founder turned East Coast venture capitalist who has known Benioff for decades.

Benioff is willing to chip more than just cash and time into nailing that purpose. Take, for example, his Twitter feed and its 1 million followers, which Benioff tapped in 2015 to point out that Salesforce is a major employer in Indiana, a state which at the time was adopting a so-called religious freedom law widely judged to be anti-LGBT. Benioff threatened to pull business from the state, and former Gov. Mike Pence relented, arguing that the statute was misunderstood. Pence pushed through changes to blunt the law’s impact. “I was very appreciative,” Benioff says of Pence’s change of heart.

Benioff has had his vision for a new kind of capitalism for decades — he’s been tech’s “woke” CEO since before “woke” was a thing. But admirers now see him becoming Silicon Valley’s seer, offering a clear view of how the industry that made him rich is heading off a cliff.

Take equal pay. Back in 2015, in the early days of the debate over gender differences in Silicon Valley compensation, Benioff ordered a review of Salesforce salaries. “I had always thought I was more progressive on gender equality than most male technology executives,” Benioff writes in his new business-tome-slash-memoir "Trailblazer." “Now I was about to get the chance to prove it.” He spent $6 million to close the gap it found.

Or online privacy. In the spring of 2018, Benioff began praising California’s move to adopt a law reining in companies’ use of data, then turned around and called, in the pages of POLITICO, for Silicon Valley to get behind a drive for a federal privacy bill. The industry would eventually rally for national legislation of the sort Benioff was pushing — in large part to defang the California law.

Or homelessness. Last year, Benioff poured millions of his and Salesforce’s money into a fight to tax San Francisco’s biggest companies to fund programs for the homeless. Other tech leaders opposed the ballot measure, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who said he worried it would hurt innovation and noted that prominent local leaders didn’t back the plan. Benioff shot back a sassy note — “Hi Jack. Thanks for the feedback. Which homeless programs in our city are you supporting?” — and was on the winning side when the measure passed.

Benioff’s politics are winning him an intriguing collection of admirers, including Ed Norton, the actor and tech investor who, completely unprompted, praised Benioff on a recent podcast. It’s “very impressive [for] a major corporate leader to be in the world saying, ‘We cannot have capitalism that continues to be defined by shareholder value,'” the “Motherless Brooklyn” filmmaker said of Benioff.

Tech skeptics are also taking note.

Benioff’s shining light on policy debates “changes the conversation and puts a little wind in the sails of people who are fighting every day for these things, but don’t nearly have the power or platform that he does,” says Catherine Bracy, executive director of the advocacy group TechEquity Collaborative, which is attempting to rally tech workers to address the Bay Area’s economic woes.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican of Tennessee and one of the tech industry’s most outspoken critics on Capitol Hill, called Benioff’s pitch for federal privacy legislation “spot on.”

Jim Steyer, CEO of the nonprofit Common Sense Media — which co-runs a “Truth About Tech” campaign to warn of the dangers of social media — says, “This is the time when, on the impact of tech on society, we’re asking, ‘Which side are you on,’ and Marc is on the correct side.” (Benioff has helped fund Steyer’s group. Says Steyer, “I don’t shill for anyone.”)

And Benioff’s call to split up Facebook — “It’s addictive, it’s not good for you, they’re trying to hook your kids” — wins him praise from David Segal, executive director of the civil liberties group Demand Progress: “I’m happy to praise just about anybody for coming to the conclusion that Facebook needs to be broken up.” Matt Stoller, one of Silicon Valley’s most relentless adversaries in Washington and a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, said of Benioff that his “arguments of late seem to be correct.”

Of course, Benioff also has his critics who, while largely insisting on speaking off the record, say he’s operating from his own place of privilege: With monthly user fees turning Salesforce into a cash-generating behemoth, it’s easy for him to beat the drum for higher taxes or beat up on the data-driven advertising that fuels a Facebook or Twitter. Also, they say, he talks about cultural respect, but he makes use of native Hawaiian imagery — he calls Salesforce employees collectively "ohana," a Hawaiian word that roughly translates to “kin.”

What’s more, they grumble, when push comes to shove, Benioff’s insistence that Salesforce be used for “ethical” purposes can be situational. Last year, about 650 of Salesforce’s own employees asked Benioff to “re-examine” a contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Benioff reported back that the agency was, acceptably, using the software for recruitment — not enforcing President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, which he called immoral. Asked about the relationship with Customs, Benioff says little beyond noting that “they are a Salesforce customer.”

Benioff says he’s on a lifelong journey of cultivating shoshin, or the Zen Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind” — learning as he’s going along, in politics as in all else.

Benioff says he’s hardly a politician, and won’t become one, but that he frequently has reason to mix it up with the likes of them.

“We’re working to move the world towards our position,” says Benioff. “They’re working on moving the world to theirs.” Coming out of the mouth of another tech CEO, that might sound like a complaint. Coming from Marc Benioff, it sounds like a perfectly happy place to be.