Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff offers leadership playbook on how to run purpose-driven businesses

Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff speaks at CES in Las Vegas on Tuesday. (GeekWire Photos / Kevin Lisota)

LAS VEGAS — Marc Benioff was heading home from dinner one evening in 2015 when he learned the surprising news: Indiana’s governor signed a controversial bill that could allow businesses to reject LGBTQ customers.

That didn’t sit well with Benioff. The Salesforce chief tweeted that the company would reduce its Indiana-related investments, and the next day canceled all programs requiring customers or employees to travel to Indiana.

“Salesforce stands for the equality of every human being,” Benioff recalled on Tuesday during a fireside chat at CES. “That was a test of our core values. We stand for employees, for equality. That is what we’re doing.”

Hundreds of companies followed Benioff’s lead. Mike Pence — then Indiana’s governor — called Benioff on the phone after the backlash. The two later met in person and negotiated a change to the law.

Benioff, who co-founded Salesforce 21 years ago and remains its co-CEO, shared the story during a conversation with MediaLink Chairman Michael Kassan and Unilever CEO Alan Jope at the Park Theater in Las Vegas.

From left to right: MediaLink Chairman Michael Kassan; Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff; and Unilever CEO Alan Jope.

The discussion focused on how companies can build purpose-driven businesses, which certainly fits the mold of San Francisco-based Salesforce under Benioff’s leadership. It’s the subject of Benioff’s new book, “Trailblazer,” that details his emergence as an accidental activist on LGBTQ rights, the environment, immigration, gender pay equity and other issues that are increasingly demanding attention and action from global business and technology leaders.

“Business is the greatest platform for change,” he said.

In his book, Benioff makes the case that “innovation cannot advance in a positive direction unless it’s grounded in genuine and continued efforts to lift up all of humanity.”

Benioff was a vocal financial backer of a 2018 ballot measure in San Francisco designed to generate up to $300 million a year in new funds for shelters and mental health services by increasing taxes on companies with more than $50 million in annual revenue.

The proposition passed despite opposition from some well-known tech companies, including Lyft and Stripe, high-profile investors such Michael Moritz and Paul Graham, and perhaps most infamously, Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey.

Benioff, who recently led Salesforce’s $16 billion acquisition of Seattle-based Tableau, was spotted earlier Tuesday attending a keynote featuring Ivanka Trump.

For CEOs and other executives looking to not only grow their bottom line but also positively impact their stakeholders — employees, customers, communities, the planet, etc. — Benioff shared some of his guiding principles that we’ve recapped below.

Start early

Benioff and his co-founders decided at the outset that they would approach philanthropy with the 1-1-1 rule: put 1 percent of its profit, equity, and time into charity.

That was easy to do when the company was tiny. But even as Salesforce grew into a tech giant with a $175 billion market capitalization and around 50,000 employees today, it stuck with its original plan to give back, allowing the philanthropy to scale in addition to the business.

“We put the seed of giving back at the beginning, ” Benioff said.

Salesforce has given more than $240 million in grants, 3.5 million hours of community service, and donated to more than 39,000 nonprofits and education institutions.

You can do both

Benioff spent 13 years at Oracle before starting Salesforce. During that time, he felt “very much split in my personality,” because he was selling software by day and getting involved with philanthropy on the side.

That’s when Benioff realized he — and a company — could do both at the same time.

“This is about the power of “And,” he said.

Salesforce brings in $17 billion in revenue annually. Benioff said having purpose and values means good business.

“You can see this as a reason Salesforce has become a high-performing company,” he said. “This is the marking of a modern high performance culture today.”

All stakeholders matter

There’s more to success than just making investors more wealthy every quarter.

“All stakeholders have to matter for us — not just shareholders,” Benioff said.

What does that look like? Benioff pointed to the company’s support of public schools and hospitals; its contribution to tackling homelessness; and other areas via

He said the planet and female employees are stakeholders, too. Pay equity is a focus for Benioff. Salesforce has acquired more than 50 companies over its lifetime, and it’s given Benioff insight into how men and women are paid. “There’s a lot of subconscious bias and a lot of men, when hiring women, they pay women less,” he said.


Trust is the most important Salesforce value.

“We are trusted advisors to our customers, delivering exceptional service and engaging intelligently with technology in order to keep their data secure,” reads the company’s site. “We establish trust with our employees by communicating honestly and transparently, and empower our people to voice ideas, opinions, and feedback.”

Trust can be paramount for partnerships, too.

“Originally we started working with Salesforce because it is such as great tech company,” said Jope, the Unilever CEO. “But the depth of the relationship has become more based on values.”

Some CEOs say their highest value is “best idea wins.” Benioff warned that the mentality “could turn into a huge crisis for you.”

Face the criticism

Not everyone is on board with the Salesforce philosophy. Benioff said there are always shareholders who question the company’s involvement with issues beyond the core business, like getting involved with the Indiana law, for example.

“They ask, ‘do you really think it’s your right as a CEO to fight that law?’ And I’m like, yes, I have to fight for the rights of our employees and customers. That’s what I do as a CEO,” Benioff said.

He added: “This is what ultimately being a chief executive today is going to be about, or really just being a human being on this planet: You have to follow your heart and follow what you know is right.”

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