The first billionaire I ever interviewed was Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce. It was the summer of 2011, and I was working on a profile
of his surging interest in philanthropy, which had vaulted him into the uppermost ranks of the city’s donors. Benioff declined to talk to me at first, but eventually he relented, and he had me over to his very nice house in San Francisco to talk about his journey from workaholic salesman at Oracle to public company CEO.
One thing I took away from the conversation was that Benioff, much more than the other CEOs I had spoken with up to that point, framed every discussion in terms of values. It was why, he said, he had set aside 1 percent of his company’s shares to fund a philanthropic foundation, which exists to this day. It was why he gave all of his employees time off each year to volunteer. It was why he donated to causes including education, homelessness, and the city’s children’s hospital, to which he ultimately gave $100 million.
I came away thinking that, whatever the ethics of being a billionaire (or relying on their whims to fund philanthropic efforts), on balance San Francisco was lucky to have a business leader who so regularly put his money where his values are.
Possibly related to all this, Benioff has a new book out. It’s called Trailblazer
, and it presents a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to business leadership in which doing the right thing is always hard, but always creates the most value in the end.
I’m not all that interested in entrepreneurial hustle porn, but I am
interested in local billionaires who have a lot to say about social networks. (Facebook opinions aside, of course, Benioff also once tried and failed
to acquire Twitter.) And Salesforce has also seen its share of the sort of employee activism that this year have roiled Google, Amazon, and Microsoft — in Salesforce’s case, over its contract with Customs and Border Protection
And so, in the days before his book came out, I hopped on the phone for my first conversation with Benioff in almost a decade. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Casey Newton: So the book opens with with you at Davos, telling your peers that you think it’s time for regulators to come in and do what CEOs won’t. And I wondered how you would rate the work that regulators have done since then, either in America or abroad?
Marc Benioff: They’re getting better. But it’s still too little, too late. There is still a lack of understanding of what’s happening with social media that works with data, and the lack of regulation that the companies need to be held accountable. Even in political advertising, they need to be held accountable to the trust and truth that all journalism is held accountable to, right? You know, government can’t do it alone. It’s about business and government.
I also will say, some of the regulators that we work with have come a long way in the last 18 or 24 months. But it’s got to go faster. And this is a moment in time when we need better ethics when it comes to what’s happening on the internet. Tech companies can’t wash their hands [of] what people are doing with their products, right? These companies have to take responsibility for their products, [which can] spread conspiracy theories, or place knowingly false advertising, or end up with journalists being jailed in different countries. And this is the key point of the book.
You take a rather dim view of the big social networks, Facebook in particular. But in the past, I’ve also heard you talk about the value of the “social enterprise.” And it seems like there was a time where you were really enthusiastic about what these networks could do for businesses and their customers. Was there a moment when your feelings about social networks and their responsibilities started to change?
Well, I think that inside companies, social networks can create more transparency and trust. And in theory, public networks should also have that same transparency and trust. But because they’ve been taken over by robots and by organizations that are trying to spread darkness and negativity and falsehoods, that’s when it breaks down. That doesn’t happen inside of a company, because employees will walk out if that happens.
Another social network that you feel strongly about in the book is Twitter. And you tell this amazing story about how the day you went to pitch the bankers on lending you the money to buy it, you tripped and cut your leg open, and and felt like maybe that was an omen, and abandoned the project completely. And between that and what we know about the history of this company, do you ever feel like Twitter is just cursed, Marc?
Because that’s been my own feeling writing about it now for nine years.
I use the product every day. And I think it’s a product that still has tremendous potential. But their vision of what safety is, and trust and truth — still can be elevated at a higher level.
Reading your account of trying to buy it, I got the sense that you wish your folks had supported you a little bit more on that purchase. Do you wish you were running it today?
When I look at that, I just say that was not meant to be. That I listened to all my stakeholders, and I walked away. There’s a lot of people who have challenged me on that decision. But the reality is, I’m running a public company. It’s not my company. It’s a company that I run in partnership with all of my stakeholders. And that’s why I wrote the book Trailblazer, because that’s how I think all companies should be run.
This is the first book you’ve written since we started seeing these big waves of activity from tech workers over political issues. And you write about how difficult it was to navigate through your own employees’ frustrations with Salesforce’s CBP contract. What was it like for you to find a compromise there. And do tech workers have more leverage over CEOs than they used to?
Well, as I said, these tech companies can’t wash their hands of what people do with their products. I can’t wash my hands of what people do with my product. We have responsibility for how our products are being used. That’s why I created an Office of Ethical and Humane Use
. But it’s also why that Office of Ethical and Humane Use came to us in the last month or so and said, “Hey, we need to ban military assault weapons. We need to ban certain firearms. We have to ban military weapons. We can’t have those sold in our commerce cloud.”
And, look, everyone’s not going to agree with us all the time on what we’re doing. But I will have a process and an ethical team who I think is making very good decisions.
I’ve been struck over the past few years, seeing these kinds of uprisings at so many tech companies — do you have a thought on why it is suddenly that the tech workers are getting a sense of their own power?
I think they realized that we need a new capitalism — that capitalism as we know it is dead. That they have the ability to be part of the new capitalism, and that means that they can bring their values to work. That these values can create value for them and for the companies they work for. And that businesses have to move this new capitalism — a more fair and equal sustainable way of doing business, that values all stakeholders as well as shareholders. And one of those key stakeholders is the employees themselves.
I write mostly about the big social networks. If the the CEOs of those networks were to take one thing away from this book, what would you want that to be?
That nothing is more important than the trust you have with your customers, employees, partners, shareholders, and all stakeholders. And trust has to be your highest value. People either trust you or they don’t. Every person needs to ask the question: what is our highest value? And if trust isn’t your highest value, then what is it? If your highest value is power and control, or money, or innovation or anything else, it’s not correct.