When Lea Tarnowski struck up a conversation with Marc Benioff at a World Economic Forum event last year, she felt "butterflies" in her stomach. Tarnowski was looking for funding and new connections for her startup Averon.
Few tech executives have more of either than Benioff, the billionaire founder of Salesforce.
Benioff, 54, is estimated to have a net worth of nearly $7 billion. The acknowledgments in one of his books -- he has co-authored three -- lists "friends" Eric Schmidt, the former Google chairman, and singer Neil Young. Each year, celebrities such as Will.i.am and Adrian Grenier speak at Dreamforce, the weeklong tech conference put on by his cloud computing company.
"He's definitely royalty in Silicon Valley, there's no question about it," says Tarnowski, whose mobile authentication company now counts Benioff as an investor. In between playing host at last month's Dreamforce, he rapidly fielded Tarnowski's requests to be introduced to other executives. "It's beyond comprehensible how he does it," she says.
In a very real sense, San Francisco is Benioff's town. His name is on the UCSF children's hospital. The 1,070-foot Salesforce Tower looms over San Francisco, and his company is the largest private employer in the city.
Nancy Connery, who has known Benioff for 25 years, describes him as the unofficial "mayor" of Silicon Valley.
Outside San Francisco, however, Benioff isn't a household name like Zuckerberg or Bezos. But Benioff is having a moment. He is positioning himself as a moral authority at a time when leaders like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are facing a crisis of public trust. And he is taking a page from the media playbook of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Last month, Benioff and his wife, Lynne, announced they were buying Time magazine for $190 million from Meredith Corp. When the deal was announced, Benioff said he and his wife had no plans to get involved in operations and want only to be "stewards of this historic and iconic brand."
Now, in an extensive interview with Laurie Segall of CNN Business, Benioff says the high-profile purchase is primarily about storytelling. "I value storytellers," he said. "I value journalists. I value photographers. I value the artists ... who are going to paint the mosaic that we're all going to march toward. And Time magazine is one of those artists."
But there may be something bigger at stake for Benioff. The executive said his goal is to have a "positive global impact." That impulse has been there for years, according to Connery, who was VP of human resources at Salesforce's founding in 1999 and now runs an HR consulting firm.
"He has always thought larger than life. He's built Salesforce to such an incredible point. It's about what's next," Connery says. She sums up his thinking as: "I've shifted technology at its core. How can I now successfully use my influence to help shift the world?"
Benioff and his wife have donated more than $250 million to children's health care, including the hospital that bears his name, and millions more to address homelessness in San Francisco. He has also repeatedly waded into politics. Benioff blasted a controversial religious freedom law in Indiana in 2015 and criticized President Donald Trump for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and for proposing a transgender military ban.
"He knows he can be a force for good and a force for change," says Brian Wieser, an analyst who tracks Salesforce for Pivotal Research.
Benioff is now directing his outspokenness back on his peers while much of the tech industry is facing a reckoning over privacy. This year, he has made headlines by labeling Facebook the "new cigarettes" and arguing it should be regulated accordingly. He doubled down on calls for greater regulation of tech in general in the interview with CNN.
"Why is technology going to be the only industry that the government isn't going to step in to make sure that there's fair practice and truth and trust with consumers or businesses? You have to get there," he told CNN Business. "When the technology's getting so powerful, they're going to have to step in and do that."
More to the point, Benioff argued that every company needs to ensure that their "highest value" is trust, rather than "power" or "monetization of ... your social network." Otherwise, he says, the company risks losing customers, employees and top executives.
"This is the new world," Benioff says. And right now, Benioff appears to be thriving in it.
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