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‘Davos Man,’ Marc Benioff and the Covid Pandemic

He frequently tells the story of his supposed inspiration for founding Salesforce. Despite success at Oracle, where he worked early in his career, Mr. Benioff was plagued by existential doubt, prompting him to take a sabbatical to southern India. There, he visited a woman known as “the hugging saint,” who urged him to share his prosperity.

From the incorporation of Salesforce in 1999, Mr. Benioff pledged that he would devote 1 percent of its equity and product to philanthropic undertakings, while encouraging employees to dedicate 1 percent of their working time to voluntary efforts. Salesforce employees regularly volunteer at schools, food banks and hospitals.

“There are very few examples of companies doing this at scale,” Mr. Benioff told me in an interview. He noted that people were always talking to him about another business known for its focus on doing good, Ben & Jerry’s. He said this with a chuckle, clearly amused that his company — now worth more than $200 billion — could be compared to the aging Vermont hippies who had brought the world Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Mr. Benioff is by many indications a true believer, not just idly parroting Davos Man talking points. In 2015, when Indiana proceeded with legislation that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender employees, he threatened to yank investment, forcing a change in the law. He shamed Facebook and Google for abusing the public trust and called for regulations on search and social media giants. Early in the pandemic, Salesforce embraced remote work to protect employees.

“I’m trying to influence others to do the right thing,” he told me. “I feel that responsibility.”

I found myself won over by his boyish enthusiasm, and his willingness to talk at length absent public relations minders — a rarity for Silicon Valley.

His philanthropic efforts have been directed at easing homelessness in San Francisco, while expanding health care for children. He and Salesforce collectively contributed $7 million toward a successful 2018 campaign for a local ballot measure that levied fresh taxes on San Francisco companies to finance expanded programs. The new taxes were likely to cost Salesforce $10 million a year.

That sounded like a lot of money, ostensible evidence of a socially conscious C.E.O. sacrificing the bottom line in the interest of catering to societal needs. But it was less than a trifle alongside the money that Salesforce withheld from the government through legal tax subterfuge.

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