scorecardSalesforce founder Marc Benioff explains how Colin Powell's advice helped shape him as CEO
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Salesforce founder Marc Benioff explains how Colin Powell's advice helped shape him as CEO

Salesforce founder Marc Benioff explains how Colin Powell's advice helped shape him as CEO
StrategyStrategy4 min read

marc benioff salesforce

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Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff speaks at the 2016 New York Times New Work Summit.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is helping lead a fight against a Georgia religious freedom bill that, if signed into law, will protect certain institutions' ability to deny service to members of the LGBT community.

It's the second time Benioff has gone up against such a bill; he leveraged his business connections to spearhead a boycott against a similar bill in Indiana last March - and won.

Benioff's penchant for activism and charity has been clear since he became Salesforce's founding CEO in 1999.

At the New York Times New Work Summit on Tuesday, Benioff told moderator Jenna Wortham that former Secretary of State Colin Powell inspired him to integrate philanthropy into his company from day one.

He explained that in started in 1996. It was his 10-year anniversary at Oracle, and he was reflecting on his career. While he was a successful executive, he wondered if he would be spending the rest of his life making money for someone else. He told his boss that he needed time off and ended up going on a trip through India with his friend Arjun Gupta, who later became the founder of Telesoft Partners.

In India, he and Gupta met the Hindu guru Mata Amritanandamayi. At one point, Gupta pitched the business idea he was working on. The guru replied: "This is such an exciting vision for the future of the technology industry, but while you work on your career ... don't forget about doing something for others. Don't forget to actually improve the world, as well."

Benioff joked with Wortham at the summit that the message went over his buddy's head, but that in all seriousness, it planted an important seed inside his own head.

Not long after returning home to California, Benioff received a call from a fellow American traveler he met on the trip, inviting him to the President's Summit for America's Future. Held in April 1997, it gathered the five living presidents (with Nancy Reagan representing her ailing husband Ronald) and cultural leaders to promote a movement to help ease the pain of America's destitute youth.

Benioff was in the crowd of around 5,000 people when retired Gen. Powell walked onto the stage to tell everyone they must contribute their time and resources to tackling poverty.

marc benioff immelt colin powell

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Marc Benioff, Jeff Immelt, and Colin Powell speak at the 2012 Salesforce Dreamforce event.

"How can we fail when we have the kind of commitment we see from our presidents and our political leaders, and our public-spirited leaders, and all the leaders in every institution?" Powell asked the crowd.

Benioff said that as he listened, he was thinking "this is the same exact thing" the guru told his friend.

Back at Oracle, Benioff founded Oracle's Promise, a program to bring computers to schools across the US. It was this program that introduced Benioff to Powell, when Powell called to pledge his support to a middle school in Washington, D.C. Benioff told him that he'd get Oracle employees to help install the 100 computers.

But the employees never showed up. A manager told Benioff over the phone that the combination of the intense heat and the lazy attitude at the end of the quarter must have kept them from pitching in, Benioff told Forbes in 2010. He called Powell to apologize, but Powell said it was no problem. Fifteen minutes later, an Oracle employee who showed up late to help informed Benioff that Powell had brought in a battalion of Marines at the drop of a hat to install the machines.

The Marines' response, when compared to the Oracle employees' response, served as "a seminal moment" in his life, Benioff told Forbes.

It tied back to what he learned from Powell and the guru weeks before.

Two years later, when Benioff decided that he was going to found Salesforce, "In my mind I started thinking, 'OK, is there a model, in the way that I have a technology model and the way that I have a business model, is there a philanthropic, social good model where I can integrate the culture?" he told Wortham.

He decided to do so with the "1/1/1" model, where 1% of profits, 1% of equity, and 1% of employees' time would go to the office's community. Building philanthropy into the business allowed these values to scale, even as it became a global company with 20,000 employees.

In 2003, President George W. Bush made Benioff co-chair of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, and Benioff came to know Powell personally. Powell became a mentor to him, and in 2014 Powell joined Salesforce's board, tying things full circle.

You can see the full New Work Summit interview below.


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