Marc Benioff, the patron saint of Silicon Valley

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Marc Benioff, in San Francisco, in April 2018.
Marc Benioff, San Francisco, April 2018. Matt Edge / New York Times-REDUX-REA

Wherever he is, he dominates everyone with a head. In the playground of Presidio Middle School, one of the twelve public colleges of San Francisco, Marc Benioff, 1.95 m, mops his forehead. It's unusually hot on this morning in September at "Fog City" (the "city of fog", one of San Francisco's nicknames) and hundreds of people crowd into a tent: teachers, elected officials, employees Salesforce, the company that Marc Benioff founded in 1999, not to mention dozens of schoolchildren sitting at the foot of the podium.

"My job every day is to run the business. But it is also to place philanthropy in the very architecture of the company. Marc Benioff

"I thank the one who thought of putting up an awning", jokes the businessman. The CEO of the global client management software giant has announced a new $ 17.2 million donation to schools in San Francisco and Oakland. In seven years, Salesforce has offered nearly $ 100 million to the Bay's "middle schools". It's hard not to think of the $ 100 million offered in 2010 by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, at schools in Newark, New Jersey. Here, some of the money is allocated directly to the wardens. "Five years ago, 700 students were studying computer science. Today, they are 25,000, welcomes the superintendent of schools, Vincent Matthews.

On October 15, Marc Benioff published a book, Trailblazer ( "Pioneer"). Subtitle: the power of the company as a "platform for change". At a time of crisis of values ​​in Silicon Valley, the CEO calls his peers to place the well-being of their compatriots (and the saving of the planet) before their profits. "Capitalism as we know it is dead, He professes. Bosses can not just worry about their shareholders (Shareholders). They have to worry about stakeholders, everyone who participates in society " – employees, customers, neighbors, children …

A boy scouting side

Former Republican, Hillary Clinton supporter in 2016, Benioff became the leader of the militant CEOs of the Valley. "My job is to run the business, he explains to us in the shade of the playground. But it is also to place philanthropy in the very architecture of the company. "

At Salesforce, he imposed the "One-One-One" model, which was copied by Google and others in Silicon Valley: 1% of the capital, 1% of the profits and 1% of the working time must be redistributed to charitable organizations. Since then, some 45,000 NGOs have benefited from free access to Salesforce software. In Paris, Benioff contributes to Refettorio, the solidarity restaurant installed in the crypt of the Madeleine at the initiative of the Italian chef Massimo Bottura.

The Salesforce Tower, inaugurated in January 2018 in San Francisco, hosts the company's offices.
The Salesforce Tower, inaugurated in January 2018 in San Francisco, hosts the company's offices. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty Images

If Zuckerberg is a robot, Benioff, 55, has a Boy Scout side. Affable, undermined rather retro compared to young techies. "Papa Bear", as nicknamed Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. In San Francisco, Benioff is a patron saint. His name is engraved on the pediment of the UCSF Children's Hospital, which he has equipped with a flotilla of small robots distributing meal trays and medicines.

His company, worth $ 130 billion, is the largest employer in the city (7,500 employees, and 35,000 worldwide). Its brand new Salesforce tower, inaugurated in 2018, dominates the landscape. At 326 meters high, two meters higher than the Eiffel Tower, the view is impregnable, but not reserved for the CEO. "The top floor is open to everyone. Employees can bring their friends there, " says Parker Harris, co-founder of Salesforce, in conserved French from his year of high school in a Parisian high school. NGOs have access to organize their fundraising evenings. "We try not to isolate ourselves from our environment," adds the right arm of the CEO.

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Marc Benioff is a pure product of San Francisco. On his father's side, the Benioffs have their roots in Kiev, Ukraine, from where his grandfather arrived when he was a child. Her father had started a chain of women's clothing stores and was taking young Marc every Sunday on her delivery tour. On the maternal side, her grandfather was more flamboyant. A lawyer specialized in the pursuit of damages, he distributed tickets to the poorest during his walks in town. Above all, he left San Francisco a mode of public transport, the BART, a kind of RER that crosses the bay.

Marc was a child prodigy at a time when the word "nerd" was not part of everyday language. At age 12, his parents let him settle in the basement close to his first computer, a TRS-80, quickly traded for an Atari 800. At age 15, he founded his first company, Liberty Software. Then he was Steve Jobs intern at Apple, before being employed at Oracle for thirteen years. At 26, he was already vice president and multimillionaire. At the dawn of the year 2000, the golden boy had an existential crisis. He took a sabbatical and went to India. He came back with the sense of his mission: "Do something for others".

Criticism of the tech

While swimming with the dolphins in Hawaii (archipelago that he loves), Benioff had the intuition of the software on the "cloud". Customers could access the subscription service rather than having to buy and download each version on their computer. Twenty years later, Benioff is leading one of the biggest fortunes in the Valley ($ 6 billion). But he has become very critical of his tech peers.

Even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he closed his Facebook account, which he blames for cultivating addiction to the platform. "The new cigarette" he let go, which earned him an icy phone call from Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg's assistant. After a slump of Salesforce employees who are upset that their company is working with the Federal Immigration Service, he has appointed an Ethics Officer. And he just ended the contracts with the gun makers.

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In September 2018, he bought the magazine Time ($ 190 million), in a personal capacity, to support the "Quality press". In November, he funded a referendum imposing a tax on big business in San Francisco to pay for housing for homeless people in the city. His peers did not catch him all, including Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter. The mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, who had his own plan, also took a stand against the initiative.

Benioff showed where power lies in the technology capital: the referendum was adopted by 62% of the vote. A year later, the CEO regrets that the tax is still blocked by a lawsuit against the big bosses of San Francisco. "While we had Trump's tax cuts … that's ridiculous! " Despite his stature, Benioff may not be able to save the tech of his own.

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