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Marc Benioff shows that CEOs can go beyond profit and champion for social justice

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

CEOs have traditionally prioritized making profits. Today more than ever, they are also under some pressure from customers and employees to weigh in on social issues in public policy. Perhaps no executive has done this so frequently or as loudly as Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce. NPR's David Gura reports.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: After a controversial abortion law went into effect in Texas, Marc Benioff sent a message to his staff in the state, punctuated with a heart emoji, offering to help them move.

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MARC BENIOFF: All I want to say to my employees is I have your back - that is that I will take care of you.

GURA: At the Code Conference last month, Benioff ticked off other times he's pushed back on policies, like in 2015, when Indiana promised to protect business owners who denied service to same-sex couples.

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BENIOFF: It took me a long time, honestly, to realize that even the thing - that that could happen. And then when they did it, I'm like, well, [expletive], we're leaving Indiana then.

GURA: Many of the world's largest businesses rely on Salesforce software and its popular messaging platform Slack. And at the time, the company had about 2,000 workers in the state. After Benioff threatened to move them, other executives followed suit. And it didn't take long until then-Governor Mike Pence backed down. Benioff is an evangelist for changing the way companies do business. Here he is on CNBC.

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BENIOFF: We need a capitalism that's more fair, more equitable, more sustainable capitalism, capitalism that values not just all shareholders, but also all stakeholders.

GURA: Benioff defines stakeholder broadly. The planet is a Salesforce stakeholder, he says, and so are the homeless in San Francisco, where Benioff's company has its headquarters and where his family has lived for four generations. When I caught up with Benioff recently, I asked him if his perspective makes him an outlier.

BENIOFF: When I first started, I don't think there were a lot of COs who were willing to speak out and really take up positions outside of maybe their product.

GURA: But Benioff told me it's less lonely lately. In 2020, hundreds of executives condemned the killing of George Floyd and made commitments to change. Debra Lee was a longtime chairman and CEO of BET, Black Entertainment Television.

DEBRA LEE: I think they've always had this power. I think they're using it more these days.

GURA: And Lee argues that's partly because younger people want to know what executives believe. But she says a CEO like Marc Benioff still stands out because so many other executives are still so cautious.

LEE: I think it's hard leading a company sometimes to figure out what the company position is. There may be a lot of disagreement among employees or executives or even board members.

GURA: And on top of that, there's fear of alienating workers or customers or shareholders. CEOs criticized new voting restrictions in Georgia, but not immediately, and some big companies struggled with how to respond. But critics argue this is a slippery slope. You weigh in on one thing, and you're expected to address every issue. When executives threatened to leave Georgia, a move right out of the Marc Benioff playbook, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed them directly.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics. It's not what you're designed for.

GURA: And it's not always easy. Despite blowback from his own employees, Benioff kept a contract with Customs and Border Protection, and he continues to do business with other countries with controversial policies, including China. But Benioff insists he has no political ambitions. And when we spoke, it was clear he's aware of how much influence he already has as the founder of a San Francisco-based Fortune 500 company.

BENIOFF: Well, I really think you have to ask yourself the question, is business the greatest platform for change? And in our world, our country, you know, CEOs wield tremendous power with these amazing businesses.

GURA: And as Benioff starts his third decade at the helm of Salesforce, he continues to tell other CEOs it's their duty to use that power for good.

David Gura, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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