Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff in conversation with San Francisco Chronicle editor Audrey Cooper on Oct. 21. /James Meinerth-Commonwealth Club
Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff in conversation with San Francisco Chronicle editor Audrey Cooper on Oct. 21. /James Meinerth-Commonwealth Club

Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO and philanthropic gadfly

In 1996, Marc Benioff was in southern India, taking a much-needed sabbatical from his high-stress, lucrative job at Oracle, when he was offered a kernel of wisdom that would forever affect his business endeavors going forward.

“In your quest to succeed and make money, don’t forget to do something for others,” Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi told him.

More than 20 years later, it’s clear Benioff, 55, has taken this to heart.

As founder and co-CEO of the multibillion-dollar, cloud-based software company Salesforce, Benioff, a Jewish San Francisco native and member of Congregation Emanu-El, has donated hundreds of millions of dollars of his company’s profits and his own fortune to schools, nonprofits and hospitals in the Bay Area.

He also has taken a radical view on what role business should play in fomenting social change, a rare departure from the profits-at-any-cost mentality maintained by many of his Silicon Valley counterparts.

cover art for "Trailblazer"His fourth book, “Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change,” was published this month. Co-authored with former Wall Street Journal reporter and current Salesforce executive vice president Monica Langley, the 272-page book lays out Benioff’s journey, from growing up among the movers and shakers of San Francisco to becoming one of tech’s philanthropic gadflies.

“I’m trying to get top CEOs to think differently,” Benioff said on Oct. 21 at a Commonwealth Club event moderated by San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper.

Benioff, whose family came to San Francisco in the late 19th century from Kiev (then part of the Pale of Settlement), says his greatest influence — apart from his father, Russell, a dress shop owner — was his maternal grandfather, Marvin Lewis. Lewis was a city supervisor during the 1940s and ’50s who unveiled a plan for a monorail system that became Bay Area Rapid Transit, earning him the title “Father of BART,” according to an October Chronicle profile of Benioff.

He remembers his grandfather’s generosity when he came across a homeless person on Market Street. “He’d pull out his wallet and hand over a $20 bill,” Benioff writes in his book, “a considerable sum to give a stranger back then.”

I’m trying to get top CEOs to think differently.

After attending Burlingame High School and entering the University of Southern California, Benioff took an internship at Apple Computer, where he developed a relationship with CEO Steve Jobs. Benioff joined Oracle after graduation, quickly climbing the ranks to become the company’s youngest vice president.

Benioff founded Salesforce in his San Francisco apartment in 1999. Just a year later, with his company growing, he established the nonprofit Salesforce Foundation and invented the 1-1-1 philanthropic model, pledging 1 percent of Salesforce’s equity, product and employee time to the foundation. It is a framework that hundreds of companies around the world now use. Benioff reports that since its founding, Salesforce has given $300 million in grants and donated 4 million employee volunteer hours. Salesforce software is now used by many nonprofits free of charge.

Benioff has used his personal fortune (recently valued at $6.5 billion, according to Forbes) to make a meaningful mark on the Bay Area. In 2010, he gifted $100 million to build a UCSF children’s hospital in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, then tacked on another $100 million in 2014, with part of the money going toward an affiliate hospital in Oakland.

Combating homelessness is Benioff’s most recent philanthropic cause. He was a major proponent of last year’s Proposition C, adding a 0.5 percent tax on San Francisco corporations with revenues higher than $50 million and earmarking the funds to tackle homelessness. After a bitter fight, the measure passed with 60 percent of the vote — but not without a testy Twitter exchange between Benioff and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who opposed the measure. “I framed it as the binary issue I believed it to be: You’re either for the homeless or you’re for yourself,” Benioff writes in his book. (In May, he donated $30 million for a UCSF study on homelessness.)

Salesforce has also used its economic influence to push back against legislation. In 2015, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics said would legally permit businesses in the state to discriminate against LGBTQ customers. Benioff tweeted, “We are forced to dramatically reduce our investment in [Indiana] based on our employees’ & customers’ outrage over the Religious Freedom Bill.”

“We can’t invest in a state that discriminates against the LGBTQ community,” Benioff reiterated during the Commonwealth Club event. “How are we going to hire employees? How are we going to do our work there?” After a tense phone call between Benioff and Pence and mounting pressure from other large companies that were threatening to pull out of Indiana, the legislation was amended to ensure LGBTQ customers could not be singled out, an accomplishment many credit to Benioff.

Salesforce, which provides companies across many industries with large-scale enterprise software focused on customer management, has not risen to the top without controversy. Internal company pushback against a contract with Customs and Border Patrol, for example, led to the creation of the company’s Office of Ethical and Humane Use, which sets ethical standards that Salesforce clients must uphold. In an Oct. 10 op-ed for the New York Times, Benioff called on corporations to make social action just as important as profit-making, and proposed higher taxes for the nation’s wealthy. Anand Giridharadas, a writer and prominent critic of corporate and CEO philanthropy, tweeted, “Where I disagree with Marc @Benioff is that I don’t trust business to behave better voluntarily, any more than I trust cats with mice care.”

Despite the criticism, Benioff remains steadfast in his philanthropic vision and resolute that his position as corporate CEO makes him an effective messenger. When Cooper asked whether he would ever consider running for public office, he quickly brushed the idea aside. “Everything I’ve been able to do so far, in terms of giving back to society, improving the state of the world, has come through the business,” he asserted. “We need to take ownership of our society.”

Gabriel Greschler
Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is J.'s editorial assistant.