It was only day two, and already the spectacle that is Dreamforce had left me no choice but to eat some weed. I chewed up half of a strong California gummy, the kind that you buy legally in an Apple store for stoners, and settled into a couch on a terrace overlooking San Francisco.
I had come to the terrace because—being available only to the press—it was sparsely populated. A respite from the crowd of 170,000 who had converged on a small section of the city for this annual bash hosted by Salesforce, a company that makes tremendous amounts of money selling “cloud-based enterprise technology,” whatever that means. I personally know multiple people who have been in long-term relationships with Salesforce users or employees, and who still cannot explain what Salesforce is or does. That hasn’t stopped six times the population of the Michigan town I grew up in from paying $2,000 to come to this thing every year. Hotels are booked 12 months in advance.
The terrace offered an excellent view of the Dreamforce “campus,” which takes over a few blocks of downtown San Francisco each year. It always has a Hawaiian theme. This is because Marc Benioff—Salesforce’s founder, co-CEO, and spiritual guide—began to develop his idea for the company when, in the late 1990s, he “rented a hut on the Big Island of Hawaii” and “enjoyed swimming with dolphins in the ocean and having enough time by myself to really think about the future,” according to his book, Behind the Cloud.
Directly below my terrace was the “Dreamforest,” not so much a forest as a city-block-length slab of astroturf. A large archway made to look like a hollowed-out Hawaiian hut served as the entrance to the forest, perhaps a replica of the very hut Benioff retired to after discussing web 2.0 with the dolphins. On the other end of the forest was a pop-up waterfall next to a pop-up stage for live music.
But the real action was between the fake hut and the fake waterfall, on the fake grass, the forest’s main trail. There, Dreamforce lovers rushed about for the chance to gather up all things Salesforce—a company that has, in the past 20 or so years, positively exploded into a $117-billion dollar behemoth; Salesforce Tower is now the tallest building in San Francisco. On the Dreamforest trail, attendees were handing out and collecting swag, networking, and, I’m sure it’s happened once or twice, falling in love with a fellow customer relationship management enthusiast.
Besides these people, I’d gone to the terrace to avoid two things. The first was the verb “to leverage.” This is a corporate-jargon favorite popular among people at the conference: Instead of saying, “Let’s use Cassandra on this project,” they’d say, “Can we leverage Cassandra here?”
The second thing I was trying to avoid was the constant sight of well-paid Dreamforce attendees, on their way to events like Dreamtalks, Circles of Success, or Keynotes, scurrying past homeless San Franciscans. The pale blue lanyards issued to all of us conference-goers provided access to stacks of radiant apples and self-caring lunches like “Grilled Tofu Bánh mì.” Yes, the label even had diacritics.
Do they donate the leftover lunches, I’d wondered, or should I just push this cart of 200 well-balanced meals out the front door as fast as I can?
I figured the leftover meals probably did get donated, because Salesforce positions itself as a real do-gooder. In the two days I’d been there, I had heard more about “diversity” and “inclusion” than anything to do with actual products or technology. Just a few weeks after the conference, Benioff would criticize tech leaders like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey for not doing enough to help the city’s homeless.
The next day, I saw conference workers throwing leftover meals into trash bins by the dozens. Guess you can’t include everyone.
Blazing the trail
In Behind the Cloud, Benioff writes that “journalists on deadline are too pressed for time to come up with their own metaphors, so they use the ones we supply.” One of his favored metaphors is that of the “trail.” Dreamforce attendees are referred to as “trailblazers.” Signs throughout the conference command: “BLAZE YOUR TRAIL.”
Sure, I’ll use this metaphor.
At the end of my trail was understanding why so many people are excited about Salesforce. Part of the excitement, it was clear, is about Benioff himself. For one thing, he is older and more seasoned than your stereotypical college-dropout starter-upper turned billionaire. He spent years working at an actual company, Oracle, before having his Hawaiian epiphany. Compared to the sometimes bizarre or tone-deaf behavior of people like Mark Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, Benioff gives the general impression of being a thoughtful and responsible leader. And despite his relatively advanced age (for Silicon Valley) of 54, he is on the rise. After spending much time in the relative obscurity of business-to-business—rather than consumer-facing—products, Benioff has been stepping into the mainstream, most recently buying Time magazine from Meredith Corp. for $190 million in September and publicly calling Facebook the “new cigarettes.”
His broadest source of appeal, though, may be that he offers a humane alternative to the cold engineering logic that dominates tech. Zuckerberg and Dorsey get called in front of senators to explain how they have unwittingly ruined society; Bezos and Musk are reprimanded for underpaying employees and enforcing work conditions that put their health at risk. Meanwhile, Benioff is buddies with influential Democrats and walks around in Hawaiian shirts talking about “ohana,” the Hawaiian word for “family.” Salesforce is consistently rated among the best places to work.
Benioff also gives away a lot of money, donating $100 million for a new hospital in San Francisco. He has baked philanthropy into Salesforce with its famed 1-1-1 model, automatically giving away 1% each of its equity, employee hours, and product. He is a guy who takes stands on political issues, making explicit his allegiance to left-leaning, progressive policies like equal pay for women. And, as I would learn at Dreamforce, he is really into Buddhist monks.
Did the key to Dreamforce’s popularity, I wondered, lie essentially in Benioff’s catchphrase “inclusive capitalism”—the idea that business, as Benioff likes to say, is “the greatest platform for change,” even greater than the state? It is an intriguing, humanistic twist on Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian tendencies, which sees cash and technology as more consequential than politics. The government is slow and broke, the logic goes. We are fast and rich. Let’s fix this.
In Benioff’s case, though, the goals are not nerd fantasies like landing on Mars or uploading everyone’s brains to computers. He’s just trying to end homelessness in San Francisco and making sure people of all gender identities feel welcome at Dreamforce. Signs around the conference say that it “welcomes trailblazers of all gender identities” and tells attendees to “trust that each trailblazer knows which bathroom is right for them.”
That is the “Benioff personality cult” explanation of Dreamforce’s strange popularity. I admit that I was a bit convinced by that sign’s singular “them.”
Another theory: Dreamforce is secretly a kind of urban Burning Man, where expo booths handed out not swag but hard drugs, and the “keynote speech” was just a big, awesome rave.
Finally, and least conceivably, perhaps people simply wanted to learn how to make their business processes more efficient, improve relationships with their customers, and blah blah leverage something something. Were trails really the only things getting blazed here?
The unwrapped limo
I arrived in San Francisco a day and a half before Dreamforce started, giving myself time to load up on legal weed and find my way around the campus. I was meant to get a limo from the airport, courtesy of Zoho. My interactions with this company had followed a pattern that I would soon become familiar with: I had never heard of it, had no idea what it did, and it wanted to meet me at Dreamforce.
I’d been invited by a woman named Amy, who worked at a PR firm representing Zoho. “It’s an unwrapped limo, and they will have some beverages (champagne as well as non-alcoholic),” she wrote in an email a few weeks before the conference. “No agenda—just a chance to unwind before the madness begins.”
I didn’t know what an “unwrapped” limo was. Are limos usually wrapped? I said yes. But since I was arriving so early, it turned out Zoho wouldn’t have any limos for me, wrapped or not. I took a Lyft, disturbed by the mention of “madness.”
I spent Monday, the day before the thing began in earnest, wandering around the campus and reading Benioff’s Behind the Cloud. This book contains 111 “plays.” As in, like, basketball plays. Benioff recommends running these plays to take your business to the next level.
Being so numerous, the plays touch on all kinds of issues. Some relate to the whole inclusive capitalism thing. “The Business of Business Is More Than Just Business,” reads #64, meaning that companies should have values that go beyond making money. Many are title-cased truisms, like #67, “Choose a Cause That Makes Sense and Get Experts on Board” or #4, “Trust a Select Few with Your Idea and Listen to Their Advice.”
One of the most insightful sections is on Salesforce’s famed events. The company is known to throw the best parties every year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, with musical acts like The Killers and John Legend. So reading play #16, “Party with a Purpose,” could give me useful insight into the thinking behind Dreamforce, I thought. Benioff tells the story of one of Salesforce’s first events, held at the Regency Theater in San Francisco, in 2000:
To tell our story, we transformed the lowest level of the theater into a space that represented enterprise software, aka hell. There were cages with actors playing captured enterprise salespeople locked inside. “Help, get me out,” they screamed. “Sign this million-dollar license agreement. I need to make my quota!”
The parties, then, are more than just a celebration of Salesforce, or an opportunity for users to learn about it. They are spectacles of Salesforce’s dominance. The musical act for that event: the B-52s.
The monks and the veterans
The next day I saw Benioff in the flesh, up close, for his keynote address. The stage was a theater-in-the-round. To me, this signaled Benioff’s commitment to “inclusion.” He wanted to be right there, next to me and you. Enough of Tim Cook’s lectures and pacing. The arrangement also fit in nicely with the jungle decor: It was easy to imagine the stage as the site of prehistoric ritual sacrifice.
If only that were true, because first onto the stage was Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, a band I have long hated. Ever since the B-52s, Dreamforce has been known for bringing in big-name musical guests. And Benioff likes to make friends with famous, usually aging, musicians. Stevie Wonder, U2, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have all performed at past Dreamforces.
This year’s guest would be Metallica. But Lars wasn’t there to tell us about that. His message was about enterprise technology. Wearing the straw fedora of a suburban dad at the beach, Ulrich announced that Metallica had spent the last year “trying to apply Salesforce products into everything that Metallica does.”
I was seated about 15 rows from Lars. This was a pretty good spot, given that people had been waiting in line for hours to get any old chair. (Twelve million people who could not be there were also streaming the thing online. Twelve million!) The best seats in the house were reserved for speakers like Lars. Behind them was the Salesforce board of directors. Then came the Monastics, a group of a couple dozen Buddhist monks that Benioff ships in every year from Plum Village, a monastery founded by the Vietnamese zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Behind the several rows of shaven heads were members of “Vetforce,” which sounds like a kids’ TV show where veterinarians fight animal-related crime, but is really made up of military veterans in the Salesforce world.
You know there are some lefty politics going on when the monks get priority over the veterans. Indeed, once it was Benioff’s turn onstage, it was easy to forget that the point of this conference was entreprise software at all. This speech was all about politics.
Benioff ascended to the stage after being draped with a lei by the wife of Daniel Akaka, a former Democratic senator from Hawaii. As he spoke, I wrote down phrases like “fourth industrial revolution” and “inclusive capitalism.” I wrote down how Benioff, who stands 6-foot-5, locked his eyes on the camera, walked toward it menacingly, and beseeched everyone watching to physically go to their local public school and ask what they can do to help.
“We’re doing it together, we’re coming together,” he added as he made his way over to the section housing the monks. “Well this is appropriate—I’m right here with the Monastics! Welcome to the Monastics!” he shouted, the way a game-show host introduces the next contestant. Then he put his hands together and bowed, silently. The monks responded in kind, and in perfect unison.
“Inclusive capitalism” was on display at the keynote when a series of videos highlighted the achievements of various “trailblazers.” One video focused on an organization called PepUp Tech. As far as specialized skills go, learning Salesforce is one of the surest ways to get a nice, middle-class, service-industry job. There is tremendous demand for people who can use the software, and little supply. So PepUp Tech teaches it to students from underserved communities. Salesforce paid for 70 of their students to come to Dreamforce. The video featured several women of color from PepUp Tech tearing up over memories of students telling them, literally, “you changed my life.”
Giving more people access to high-paying tech jobs. Looks great.
Soon after that, though, a darker, less altruistic interpretation of “inclusive capitalism” began to emerge. One that sees it not primarily as a way to bring in the excluded, but to boost the Salesforce brand, to fortify the cult, to attract talent and investors. To establish a place in history.
After the PepUp Tech video, another told the story of billionaire Italian fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli, who uses Salesforce at his company. Cucinelli was himself in attendance. After the video finished, he took the microphone and spoke directly to Benioff in rapid-fire Italian, through an interpreter, as if he were the effusive prognosticator of an ancient king.
“For your birthday,” Cucinelli pronounced, “I have a special request to submit to you.” This was how I learned that the keynote speech was happening on the day of Benioff’s 54th birthday.
“I would like you, in this special world, which is the cradle of genius, you should envision something that lasts for the next 2,000 years,” Cucinelli continued. “In ancient Greece, Pericles 2,500 years ago stated, ‘as long as our Parthenon is standing, our Athens will be standing, too.’ In ancient Rome, Hadrian stated, ‘I feel responsible for the beauty in the world,’ and he states, ‘my Rome will be there forever.’ In my Florence, during the Renaissance, there is Lorenzo the Magnificent, another genius, who basically sits around the same table, Michelangelo, Leonardo, all together, and they design and plan for eternity…I think you, Marc, you could be the new Lorenzo the Magnificent of this side of the world.”
Benioff was certainly positive about the first video, but this speech appeared to affect him in a deeper way. Salesforce Tower is now the tallest building in San Francisco. There is a children’s hospital in the city with his name on it. Maybe not quite 2,000 years, but those will last. And with Time under his belt, Benioff is in a position to become known as the guy who figured out how to improve the world while making loads of cash. He has deflected suggestions that he intends to run for political office by saying he can do even more good as a CEO.
If “inclusive capitalism” has any chance of succeeding, one could hope for no better agent than Benioff. He’s a large, imposing, wealthy white man with ties to cultural icons and A-level politicians, but also to community leaders and local activists. Instead of making grand, world-changing gestures to “cure all diseases,” his focus is local, on things he has a personal stake in and can observe, like the well-being of the Bay Area. He has a chief philanthropy officer. Salesforce develops tools that make charitable giving easier for companies and organizations. His intentions appear to be good.
But it’s also true that Benioff probably couldn’t have bought Time magazine, or built such a tall tower, if not for the exclusive capitalism that he hopes to rid the world of. This is the hard thing about being a billionaire who wants to do good: they only feel responsible for the beauty in the world so long as they still get to have lots and lots and lots of money. Benioff can donate tens of millions of dollars, marginally expanding the set of people who benefit from the status quo, without really losing any of his own wealth. And if anything, it raises his status even further.
But if “inclusive” and “capitalism” turn out to be incompatible, would he be willing to give it all up for the greater good?
Inside the Circle of Success
A lot of the enthusiasm for Salesforce comes from all the philanthropy and social justice talk. But I suspect the real belief system underlying the cult of Salesforce isn’t, as Benioff likes to say, “doing well by doing good.” It’s “make enterprise software not suck.”
What exactly, you might ask, is “enterprise software?”
This phrase is just one of many jargon-y terms that I would learn over the course of the week. To gain fluency in this corporate dialect, I went to a “Circle of Success,” Dreamforce’s culty term for “roundtable discussions.”
The discussion in question centered around using Salesforce at companies in the financial services industry. Despite this ostensibly bland topic, the room was packed. Dozens of people were lined up out the door, looking surly, as if hoping to get in to an exclusive nightclub. I had not registered for this session, and had to convince the conference bouncers that my press pass allowed me entry. They allowed me to attend on the condition that I wouldn’t take up a precious chair.
I agreed and sat in a chair at the far end of the room. Slowly, several people, all of them white, nearly all of them women, joined our table. One worked for a community bank in Wisconsin. Another for Freddie Mac. Two of the women, it turned out, worked for the company my brother co-founded, which often helps financial firms with Salesforce.
This was the closest I had come to understanding what Salesforce is actually good for, beyond throwing swanky parties. Everyone at the table had used Salesforce to solve problems at their companies. It had worked well. They had many more problems, and wanted to figure out the best way to use the platform to solve those, too. As they discussed how best to “leverage Financial Services Cloud,” their heads nodded.
What dawned on me over the course of this discussion was the sheer ubiquity of software. Yes, it is several years now since Marc Andreessen wrote that “software is eating the world.” But it’s not just the smartphones and websites that we have come to be familiar with as “software.” It’s literally everything. Do anything in a modern city and it will trigger a long string of computational processes. Test-drive a car, express interest in an insurance plan, apply for a loan, contribute to a nonprofit, use a credit card, call airline customer service, change a t-shirt order from “large” to “medium,” and you will be entered into a database, added to annual reports, sent automated emails, plugged into “people who buy X also buy Y” algorithms. This is obviously true for hip startups like AirBnb. It is also true for boring, ancient, bailed-out behemoths like Freddie Mac.
Usually, the software that runs in the dark server rooms of non-tech companies either comes with hefty license fees or is barely functional, hacked together over years by in-house coders who have come and gone. Information relevant to the company may be spread across hundreds of spreadsheets and thousands of emails, accessible only from certain computers or networks. One of the chief complaints of the woman from Freddie Mac was that the company has “a lot of legacy systems” that need to be modernized.
“Enterprise software”—specifically “customer relationship management” software—aims to solve, or at least alleviate, such problems. Benioff’s insight was to do so using the “cloud.” Instead of charging people for a license to use your software, a la Windows XP, have them pay for a subscription to use your service, which can be accessed anywhere. It’s like Gmail, but for all of the mind-numbing tasks of the modern salesperson, customer service representative, or middle manager, like inputting what happened on a call with a customer or generating inventory reports. No more understaffed IT departments, no more inaccessible spreadsheets, no more massive upfront costs.
These days, most people use several cloud-based services, like Spotify or Dropbox. It’s why the Google Chromebook can be a thing, and why Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, can get by without ever using a computer. It’s why Salesforce can count among its several mascots SaaSy, named after “Software as a Service,” a dancing white circle with arms and legs, but no face, that displays the word “software” in a red circle with a red line crossing it out. Nothing to install, just the cloud. That is sassy.
But Benioff was onto the idea early. Less than 20 years have passed since he staged a sassy fake protest at the annual conference of the incumbent CRM giant, Siebel Systems, with protesters chanting, “The internet is really neat, software is obsolete!” Now 89 of the companies on the Fortune 100 use Salesforce. For the past three years, Salesforce has grown over 20% year-over-year every single quarter.
The forest trails, the Metallica concert, all the talk of philanthropy and inclusion, these are just nice-to-haves, icing on the CRM cake, ways to sex up the unsexy but highly profitable task of automating and streamlining sclerotic business processes. People were here because non-tech companies suck at tech, because they are dealing with ancient systems designed by a guy named Jared who never responds to emails, because there is a vast technological gap between the slick, intuitive applications they use as consumers and the obsolete crap they use at work. Every company has that person who says, “there must be a better way.” Like Katie Rausch from the small Wisconsin bank, or Judy Lillibridge, a woman I spoke to while aimlessly drinking free beer on the expo floor, who is trying to improve how the journal Science interacts with its subscribers.
There were a lot of these people at Dreamforce.
In which I bloviate about Salesforce
Then again, a lot of people at Dreamforce are not like Rausch or Lillibridge. They are doing… something else. At best this could be called “networking.” At worst, “desperate PR.” There are plenty of activities that involve little actual content and problem-solving, and even less expertise. I know this because I do not have any expertise in Dreamforce or Salesforce specifically or enterprise software in general, yet I somehow found myself on a conference panel entitled “Grand Predictions for Dreamforce 2019-2020.”
I’d been invited by one Danny Finlay, on behalf a company called Radius. “Hi Danny,” I replied when I got the email. “I would be very interested in being on your panel. However, can I ask why you selected me?”
Danny responded promptly: “We thought with your experience covering technology and data that you would be a perfect fit to discuss and provide insight on future trends in enterprise technology, as well as retrospectively look back at how past trends have fared.”
Would I really be a perfect fit? It is true that, when I look back, I generally do so retrospectively, via the past. I could not, however, name a single trend in enterprise technology. It didn’t seem to matter. I reiterated my lack of expertise in another email: “If that’s fine with you, it’s fine with me.”
“Awesome,” Danny wrote, “we are very excited that you will be joining our panel and look forward to all the great insight.”
Alongside me on this panel would be three men, seasoned industry analysts who had for years made a living literally providing “insight on future trends in enterprise technology.” The information Danny provided to me implied that 2,000 people were planning to attend this panel.
This turned out to be an epic misrepresentation. I showed up to a room of about 30 empty chairs and an equal number of people, who were more focused on the lunch buffet than the little stage where I would be making my predictions.
During a pre-call I had made it once again known that I knew next to nothing about Salesforce, and was once again reassured. It was decided that I would be asked in general about “data,” which over the course of three minutes I said was important but poorly understood. I was also asked about “predictions for Salesforce,” which over the course of two minutes I said would try to establish itself in the public consciousness as a model of “inclusive capitalism,” a topic people seemed to have no interest in relative to Salesforce’s recent $6.5 billion acquisition of MuleSoft, which specializes in “integration.” I also made a couple quips.
A few days after Dreamforce, I got an email from Radius employee John Hurley, who I suspected may have put me on the panel either to troll me, or the panel, or both.
“The panel session had the best anecdotal [response] across all 3 days,” wrote John. “I met with the CRM team from Dupont immediately after and they loved it—they said it was better than any other actual Dreamforce session.”
How’s that for insight.
Metallica, and Benioff’s secret
During the panel pre-call, John had given me an interesting estimate. I asked him why people go to Dreamforce. “10% to learn, 20% to be inspired, and 70% to be entertained,” he said.
Other people I asked disputed that 70% figure, but it is true that entertainment is difficult to avoid at Dreamforce. At around 4pm on each day of the conference, unlimited food and alcohol began to emerge across the campus, available to anyone with a blue lanyard. My conversation with a group of 20-somethings ended as soon as one of their peers came around pointing at each of them and inquiring, “Tequila shot? Tequila shot?” I downloaded an app called Partyforce, which listed dozens of Dreamforce-related parties. Temple, one of the main nightclubs in San Francisco, had an open bar for any lanyardist willing to wait in line for a bit. Plus, Metallica would be playing Wednesday evening.
Aside from the big Metallica thing, these parties are run not by Salesforce, but by companies who pay large amounts of money to push their names out during the conference. I went to one hosted by something called WalkMe.
On Partyforce, WalkMe had promised the party would be filled with “top influencers—across every industry.” It was not. It was more like a wedding after the kids have gone to bed. People who don’t normally have time to go out were suddenly on a dance floor, drunk on free, tepid liquor—the bar was out of ice—with nowhere else to be.
I spotted two young-ish guys who looked like they did not belong in this “casual and professional environment for establishing valuable connections.” They stood next to the DJ booth, slightly away from the action.
“I’m in physical pain right now,” one of them told me. They were members of an elaborate ecosystem of Bay Area locals who despise Dreamforce and everything it stands for, yet take part in it because of the money-making opportunities it offers. I will call these the “reluctant creatives.” The guy in physical pain had done the audio for the party; next to him was the man in charge of visuals. They told me that they make in a week of Dreamforce what they do in months of regular work.
The next night, I arrived early for Metallica (a sentence I have never expected to type). Another reluctant creative, DJ Mary Mack from New York, was playing a warm-up set to which assorted Salesforce mascots danced. There was SaaSy, Einstein, Appy, Cloudy. They were all there, bumping to LMFAO’s “Party Rock.”
Free concerts at conferences are weird. Rather than actual Metallica fans, the crowd was made up of people who decided they “might as well” see Metallica. A whiff of weed smoke wafted through this crowd, and people whooped.
As the warm-up set approached Metallica’s entrance, protestors had projected a message onto the building across the street, in massive letters: “Text BENIOFF to 384-387 to learn his secret.” Intriguing.
A man in the group to my left followed these instructions, and received a lengthy response from Fight For the Future, a civil-rights group that focuses on the internet. The text informed this man that Salesforce had refused to cancel its contract with Customs and Border Protection. In this way, the group claimed, Salesforce was helping to facilitate family separations at the border.
They are not alone in this view: Earlier this year, hundreds of Salesforce’s own employees sent Benioff a letter asking him to cancel the CBP contract, writing, “We cannot cede responsibility for the use of the technology we create—particularly when we have reason to believe that it is being used to aid practices so irreconcilable to our values.” Benioff has said that the contract will stand, saying it is not relevant to family separation. When I asked the company for more details, they said they would provide information on background, then never did, despite repeated requests.
The guy to my left awkwardly laughed off the message, and unfortunately, Metallica began to play. I had arrived so early to the concert that, even though I could only handle 15 minutes of the music, it took me another 20 to leave. This was the strongest message yet of just how many people had come to Dreamforce. Even a Metallica show was jam-packed.
Free at last, I considered the text message. Fight for the Future protesters had been present throughout Dreamforce, displaying a 14-foot cage labeled with the Salesforce logo and the phrase “DETENTION CENTER.”
In July, Benioff attempted to solve the problem with cash, offering the immigrant rights group Raices a $250,000 donation, which they refused. He also offered to speak to Jonathan Ryan, the organization’s executive director, about the contract. Emails obtained by the Guardian show that he backed out at the last minute. Benioff explained his absence: “I am sorry I’m actually scuba diving right now.”
Ryan was baffled. Apparently he hadn’t read Behind the Cloud. Play #1, the very first one, is “Allow Yourself Time to Recharge.”
Mind your mindfulness
On Thursday, I went looking for the monks. They were not in the “mindfulness lounge” as promised. Disappointed, I wandered back to the Trailhead to see what new tech and products lay in wait in the forest.
There I spotted a monk swiping her badge on a large LCD screen that read, “Learn new skills and win fun prizes! Complete your quest to unlock $1M to help end homelessness in the Bay Area.” Was this monk trying to upskill herself and land a job as a Salesforce administrator? I caught up with her and asked what she was doing at Dreamforce, of all places.
Her name, I learned, was Sister True Reverence. She was a member of the California branch of Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery. Her task here, she said, was to help people destress, relax, and be fully aware.
“Taking a breather should not be considered a negative thing,” she said. Next to us a man on a stage used the phrase “maximize your win-rate.”
Sister True Reverence told me that Benioff and a few of his fellow tech leaders had met Thich Nhat Hanh in 2013. Of these, only Benioff took the teachings seriously. In 2015, Benioff had Thich Nhat Hanh and 29 other monks stay at his “other house” in San Francisco.
Benioff credits the mysticism of the East with his dedication to philanthropic or otherwise do-gooder efforts. After his three-month stint with the dolphins in Hawaii, he spent another two months in India, where he had an “incredible awakening.” On this trip, he met privately with both the Dalai Lama and Ravi Shankar (the spiritual leader, not the sitar player). He also met with Mata Amritanandamayi, a Hindu guru with a large following.
“It was she who introduced me to the idea, and the possibility, of giving back to the world while pursuing my career ambitions,” Benioff writes in his book. “I realized that I didn’t have to make a choice between doing business and doing good. I could align these two values and strive to succeed at both simultaneously.
Never mind that Hinduism and Buddhism are not the same. The “doing well by doing good” philosophy is a strong part of Salesforce’s culture. Its 1-1-1 model has led to hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to charitable causes.
That’s a lot of giving. But Benioff’s intentions are not so clear. During the keynote, his talk of charitable giving focused more on the fact that, in today’s world, successful businesses need to stand for something. That employees—like the ones who told him to put an end to the CBP contract—want to work for companies that they see as being on the right side of history. That being a do-gooder is a sound strategy for making money.
Is “inclusive capitalism,” therefore, a genuine effort to improve the lots of those who have been excluded, or a strategic move to attract talent and impress investors? Does it matter, if the result is the same?
It does matter, because if capitalism is going to include everyone, that needs to be a requirement, not a goal. Benioff’s formulation sounds nice, but doing business and doing good are not always aligned. Just look at Facebook. When the two are opposed, the choice should always be “good.” There should be no point at which “inclusive” stops and “capitalism” begins. San Francisco’s homelessness problem has grown alongside Salesforce and other tech companies, whose well-paid employees push up housing costs. Throwing the money you make from that arrangement at the problem, after the fact, does not absolve you.
Benioff likes to say that “business is the greatest platform for change,” or alternatively, “The business of business is improving the state of the world.” He has said he’s too busy to run for office and that being a CEO gives him more power to change the world anyway.
The push for “inclusive capitalism” implies that the system, as it is, is exclusive. By saying he can do more as a CEO than in government, Benioff is making the absurd claim that those best suited to fix this situation are the very people who have benefited most from it—he and his ultra-wealthy peers. They are responsible for the beauty in the world, and we should be thankful for any inclusion they deign to hand out to the rest of us.
Having talked to oh-so-many white folks, I was relieved to join a group of African-Americans, the first I had seen all week, at a picnic table out in the Dreamforest. They were from PepUp Tech, the organization featured in the keynote, and from which Salesforce had paid for 70 people to come to Dreamforce.
We talked about getting a job in Salesforce, networking, how the conference was going. After a while, one of the students asked, “My question is, where are all the black people?”
Caught somewhere between “inclusive” and “capitalism.”