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Crusading tech mogul aims to prove CEOs can be activists too

By Michael Liedtke and Barbara Ortutay  /  AP, San Francisco

Salesforce founder Marc Benioff oversees a US$130 billion software empire from a 62-story skyscraper that towers above everything else in San Francisco. He sits uneasily in his lofty perch because of a worsening economic divide on the streets below, where the lavish pay doled out to tech workers like his are pricing many people out of affordable housing.

He is urging chief executives to help fix a “train wreck” of inequality his industry helped create.

He wants them to take a stand on homelessness, along with other polarizing issues such as gay rights, climate change and gun control, to fill what he considers a leadership void that is paralyzing government in times of crisis.

Benioff blames much of society’s current troubles on “CEOs who have been asleep at the wheel.”

In a forthcoming book, Trailblazer, due out on Tuesday next week, Benioff calls on activist CEOs to lead a revolution that puts the welfare of people and the planet ahead of profits.

“We are at a point where CEOs recognize that they just can’t be for their shareholders,” Benioff said in an interview. “They have to be for all their stakeholders, whether it’s for their schools, whether it’s for the environment, whether it’s for the fundamental equality for every human being.”

Skeptics wonder if his brash call for action is just another exercise in self-promotional showmanship he honed under his former boss, Oracle’s flamboyant founder, Larry Ellison.

Another nagging question: Should a billionaire who rode technology to wealth and fame be trusted to help fix the problems his industry has exacerbated?

Critics say that is a bad idea, particularly as chief executives become ever more isolated economically from the rest of society.

Even at a booming tech company such as Salesforce, a worker making the average annual income of US$152,000 would need nearly two centuries to match Benioff’s US$28.4 million pay package last year.

With a fortune estimated at US$6 billion, Benioff lives in a mansion looking out on the Golden Gate Bridge and owns a 2 hectare compound on Hawaii’s Big Island, where he says he could clear his mind while swimming with dolphins and whales.

He bought Time magazine last year for US$190 million and has his name on children’s hospitals, a legacy of the more than US$300 million that Benioff and his wife, Lynne, have donated to those institutions.

Relying on the privileged classes to set the social agenda during divisive times harkens back to the colonialism that the US revolted against in 1776, said Chiara Cordelli, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

“Even if they are very well intentioned, they are so powerful it becomes a question of whether they should have this kind of voice,” Cordelli said. “The more they do the work of government by themselves, the more reasons we will have to wonder whether we should trust government.”

Benioff also has alienated other prominent tech executives with his sometimes-blunt criticism directed at tech companies that focus on consumer services, a mass market that is far outside of Salesforce’s realm.

Salesforce’s niche is making software that manages customer relationships for businesses and government agencies. Consequently, the company is insulated from the intense scrutiny facing the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple over addictive products that peer into people’s lives while promoting lies, prejudice and violence.

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