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Marc Benioff has not had what you might call a conventional entrepreneurial experience. As a teenager in San Francisco he created his own home-made video games, and sold them to pay for college. After graduation, he became one of the fastest rising executives in the history of Oracle, before an existential crisis led him to take a sabbatical and travel to Nepal. There he wound up in the company of a woman nicknamed “The Hugging Saint,” who, amid Hindu chants and clouds of incense, listened to Benioff's plight and told him, “In your quest to succeed and make money, don't forget to do something for others.”
This interaction altered the course of his life and inspired him to start a company of his own, which has now altered the course of many other lives. In just under 25 years, Salesforce, which sells cloud-based customer-relationship-management software, has grown to a $213-billion global business with 70,000 employees, and made Benioff a billionaire many times over.
But his success has also allowed him to cut an unusual figure for a modern tech CEO. Benioff has taken unapologetically progressive stances on issues from LGBTQ rights to immigration, education to healthcare, homelessness to deforestation, while also donating vast sums of money, time, and expertise through Salesforce and his own personal fortune, calling on his peers to do the same, to mixed results.
The man business writer Peter Goodman once described as a “blend of bohemian mysticism and ruthless entrepreneurialism that connects the venture capitalists of Sand Hill Road to the costumed hordes at Burning Man” talked to us last week from his private jet, as he headed back to his home base in San Francisco.
GQ: Marc, how much do you sleep on an average night?
Benioff: I sleep on an average night—I have to look at my Oura Ring. About eight hours?
So you’re not one of these maniacs who claims they can survive on four hours of sleep.
No, I don't think that's generally a good idea. Based on the medical research.
I know a guy who does it, and I just keep telling him that at some point he is going to either have a massive coronary event or a psychotic episode.
What’s your policy on the smartphone overnight? Do you keep it close by?
My phone is usually on my bedside table. Is that a bad idea?
The research suggests it is.
Uh-oh. I'll move it.
Well, you’re a fairly busy man, so maybe it’s alright. As you go through your day, meeting by meeting, call by call, how do you keep your mind from wandering to the other million things you need to be worrying about?
Probably the most important thing to me is meditation. Most days, I will start with 30 to 60 minutes of meditation. That's been a huge part of my life for more than 30 years—since ‘92.
How’d you come to it?
I came to it because I was very successful when I was super young, and I started needing more tools to manage myself. Meditation became something that I became really attracted to. It made a huge difference right away.
What does it do for you?
One, it helps you let go of things that just don’t matter. And two, it really does help you to reprioritize what does matter, to focus on what's really important. If everything is important, nothing is important. You have to choose, and meditation helps you to get much clearer about what really is important.
I feel like you have more control over your stress levels, too, when you do it, when you meditate regularly. It’s like you get a little knob that lets you turn stress down a bit.
Oh, absolutely. I feel that way too.
Your book talks a lot about the importance of corporate culture. And a big part of that is the Hawaiian tradition of Ohana, which basically means treating everyone you encounter as honorary kin. Can you tell me a bit about it?
The Ohana culture has been a huge part of Salesforce. It really starts with our 1-1-1 model, which is now 25 years old. We put 1 percent of our equity, profit, and time into a foundation when we started the company. It was really easy, because we had no equity, profit, or time, and there was nobody there. [Laughs.] But now, 25 years later, we've given away close to a billion dollars in grants. We run 70,000 nonprofits and NGOs for free on our service, and we have done more than 7 million hours of volunteerism. That starts to set the culture: a culture based on that idea that we’re doing more than just working. We're giving back.
It's an interesting approach for a company to take at a time like this, because a lot of people are very estranged from each other, politically, socially, economically, even physically, and we’re seeing record levels of loneliness…
Right. And I would say a key part of it is we're not looking at some separation between us and our community. In San Francisco and Oakland, where the company is headquartered, we’ve given away more than 150 million to local public schools, more than a hundred million dollars to the local public hospital. This idea that we are giving back at scale, but also our employees are volunteering in those schools, in those hospitals. That's really important to us. Ohana is an idea that we're taking care of our community and our employees.
It’s also a way to get your employees to actually engage with the communities they work in. Which is frankly unusual for a big tech company.
Right. We’re giving them permission to do that.
Do you pay them for their time, when they volunteer?
Yeah, it’s all paid time off.
You took some heat a while back for trying to coax your employees back to the office, while also admitting you didn’t like working in offices. Have you gained any insights into striking a better balance between remote and in-person?
People need to focus on being happy. When I talk to my friends, and they’re going through some kind of existential crisis, I'll say to them, “Just tell me what are five things that are making you super unhappy right now?” And they'll give me those five things. Then I'll say, “What are five things that are making you super happy right now?” And they write those things down, and then I'll say, just do a little bit less of the things that are making you unhappy. And for some of them, they need to rebalance home and work. Some need to spend more time in the office. Some need to spend more time at home. Every person's different, but I think to optimize the workforce, you have to realize it’s not a one-size-fits-all agenda.
When I was reading your book, Trailblazer, I was struck by the portrait you painted of yourself as a kid. You were a tinkerer, a coder, you kept to yourself. You were shy and introverted. You are no longer shy and introverted. What happened? Did you have to work to become more social?
It kind of happened in college. In college, my professors said to me, “Hey, you are not going to just go start your own company after this. You understand that, right?” I was like, “What do you mean?” They're like, “You already know how to program. You're going to go learn to sell.” So that's when I went to work for Oracle in 1986.
What was that transformation like?
It was trial by fire.
I can imagine.
It was really brutal. But it was exactly the right thing. It was the only way I was going to learn how to do it. But those college professors definitely thought, Here’s this nerdy kid in college. He wants to go start a software company. We’re not going to let him do that. He was going to have to go find his way into a company and do something that’s not technical for a while.
Build up those soft skills.
It was great advice to broaden myself out a little more.
I met a woman a couple years ago who was one of the first female construction superintendents in Massachusetts. She was really shy as a kid, and her father pushed back against it by making her call the pizza joint on Friday nights and have a conversation with the guy about what she should order. Just to help get her out of her shell. She credits that for her success in dealing with a lot of types of often difficult people.
Yeah! Those kinds of life experiences. My father owned women’s clothing stores, and on the weekends when I wasn’t programming, I would have to get in the Buick Skylark station wagon and drive from store to store delivering the clothes. That was the beginning of that process.
Working in retail can make you pretty good at connecting with all sorts of different people.
Working in different countries will do that to you as well. Someone can look exactly like you, and then they are nothing like you. They don’t think like you. They don't have your values. It has nothing to do with the color of their skin, or what religion they are. It’s all about what their values are, and how they see the world based on their experience. You learn to navigate those different value systems, and different cultures, and different religions.
And for me, I think growing up in San Francisco really helped, too. It’s such a diverse environment, and you have to deal with so many different characters, so many different people—every political orientation, every race, gender, we're the home of gay rights and the LGBTQ community. I think that’s one of the reasons I've been able to navigate really difficult social situations as I've gone around the world.
But, when you're meeting new people—on one hand you're good at this, you're relatable, you're personable. But on the other hand, you do represent enormous wealth and enormous power.
And also, I’m six-five.
Right. You’re also a very large man. But when you do meet people, you’ve got this stature that must loom over the interaction. Do you have any techniques for putting people at ease?
I don't really have an answer. I just try to be who I am. I think that’s all you can really do. I think if you try to do something other than that, you're going to get yourself in trouble.
Have you seen your peers become warped by having a great deal of money or influence?
I have a lot of friends who have moved so they can pay less taxes. I think that's really interesting. Not one friend, many friends have moved just for one purpose: so that they'll pay less taxes. For me, that's the last thing I'm going to do. [Laughs.] I'm going to organize my life for how happy I’m going to be. That's where my head is at. I'm 59 now. I'm not 49, I'm not 39, I'm not 29. I'm not 19. And so when I think about my life, I want to enjoy every day. I want to be happy every single day. That's really important to me. Really, nothing else is important, and if all of a sudden I'm not happy every day, then I'm going to change what I'm doing.
Are you still happy running Salesforce?
I'm still happy every day, or I wouldn't be doing it. But if I'm supposed to go somewhere and I don't feel like it, or I feel like that's going to impair me, I'm not going to go.
That’s also a pretty good way to head off burnout.
Right. And I’ll give you another good way to avoid burnout: Really focus on, and understand, do you have a purpose to your work? Do you have a purpose to what you’re doing? Do you feel like what you're doing is having an impact? Is this something that you really feel good about doing, every day? People may criticize you, but the reality is how do you feel? Would you go back and make the same decisions?
Do you have to constantly ask yourself those questions? How do you stay on track?
I have a hierarchy of things that I go down. Where am I spiritually? is number one. Where am I physically? Where am I with my family or with my friends? Where am I now in my work? Where am I in my philanthropy and my ability to give back? Where am I impacting global issues and in a positive way that I feel good about? This is my hierarchy of how I get to that point. Then I say, What is my level of happiness when I look at all of those things, and then how can I make some slight adjustments to make things a little bit better?
You have proudly claimed the mantle of being an “activist CEO.” As I was reading about that—
I didn't choose that. It got thrust on me.
Right. By a Wall Street Journal reporter who works for you now.
That was Monica Langley that did that to me.
“That did that to me.” Is there another way that you would characterize it?
I didn’t like it at first, but I don’t mind it now, but I think people need to realize that business is the greatest platform for change. If that means calling it activist, fine, because you need to be taking an action. That’s part of being an activist. Ultimately, your life has to be a platform for change. What are you doing with your life? What are you doing with your business? What is your perspective? At the end of the day, you can't do everything, but you can do some things. You have to figure out what really matters to you, and then once you find those things: do it.
Do you hear from other CEOs who might be inclined to pursue a more activist path, but are worried about shareholder blowback problems with the board?
Of course. I am! I'm one of those. [Laughs.]
Right, you caught a little heat earlier this year with activist shareholders who thought you weren’t squeezing enough value out of the company. How did you handle it?
I met with them! And it was awesome, by the way. I learned a ton. Everyone told me to be afraid of them, but it turned out to be a really great experience. I even spent time training one of them on how to meditate. But yeah, one part of their narrative always starts out, “You need to only be focused on this, this, and this.” But they don't understand the interconnectedness of all things. Once you can get to that point, you're in a much better place. You have to recognize that there is no Other. You're connected with everything. So just broaden your consciousness, and then let your life guide you in that direction.
This is how I look at life. What am I going to do? Just have a company that builds products and makes money, and that's all that's interesting? That's a huge failure. When you have so many resources, you have the ability to do so much, to give back at scale. You’ve got to at least try.
It's interesting to me that you personally went to the activist shareholders, because to engage with a potential adversary, in good faith, without being a know-it-all, or trying to muscle them out of the way, does require a sort of humility.
I wouldn't say I have a lot of humility. [Laughs.]
But listening is a kind of humility.
That could be true. I think it's important to deeply listen—to yourself and to others. No question. That's the heart of sho-shin, which is the Beginner’s Mind. In the Beginner’s Mind you have every possibility. But in the expert's mind, you have few. We have to build a Beginner's Mind.
Joe Keohane is the author of The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, and the co-author of The Lemon: A Novel. He lives in New York City.
Originally Appeared on GQ