The turn of the 21st century brought a lot of changes to the business world, but the most significant so far has been the integration of advanced information technology into business. One of the most notable figures in that revolution has been Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of Salesforce. During his career, he established himself as an early champion of cloud computing, and is credited today as the driving force behind the $17.5 billion dollar business.


Benioff is best known, however, for how he runs his business, more than the success of that business itself. His leadership style, passion, and big-picture vision have earned him global recognition as a philanthropist and social activist, as well as a personal net worth of over $4.4 billion USD.

A passion for programming

Benioff’s career started earlier than most. At the age of 15, he began coding applications and games, which he later used to fund his education at USC. Even though he was well-suited to programming work, he took the advice of his mentors and went on to work in a number of customer facing roles at Oracle over a 13 year career there. This proved to be a good decision; the combination of technical and customer-facing experience he had, contributed to him becoming Oracle’s youngest vice president at the age of 26.

Platform as a service

Using what he learned at Oracle, Benioff founded Salesforce together with Parker Harris in 1999. There, they worked to develop the customer relationship management (CRM) software of the 21st century. While Salesforce is absolutely an industry leader in CRM software, Benioff decided to take the idea further than just creating software products for his customers. A major proponent of the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model, he is credited today as having coined the the term Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS).

Instead of simply offering a finished software product to clients, Salesforce allows customers to build and run their own applications on the Salesforce cloud. As a talented programmer himself, this innovation is an early reflection of Benioff’s own passion for innovation and customisation.

Leadership philosophy

Unlike many leaders who maintain a laser focus on their specific business, Benioff believes in a more integrated big-picture approach. He believes that leaders are responsible for spurring innovation and driving growth while promoting equality and building trust within their businesses as well as in their local communities.

Since businesses, their employees, and their customers all exist in a larger ecosystem, long term success requires the development of that entire system. In Benioff’s mind, doing good and doing good business are both a part of the same larger goal. As a result he’s known today as far more than just a successful entrepreneur, but also as a philanthropist and social activist.

Benioff’s 1-1-1 model for philanthropy

As a part of his corporate philosophy, Benioff established the 1-1-1 model of integrated corporate philanthropy. This model systematically contributes one percent each of a business’ products, equity, and employee hours back into the communities in which it operates. Since 2000, when he began applying this idea, has provided more than $100 million in grants, donated over a million employee hours, and provided nearly 30,000 nonprofit agencies with free access to their technology.

Not only has this approach provided invaluable support for their beneficiaries, it has also set a trend in the business world. Since 2000, over 700 businesses worldwide have adopted Benioff’s model and begun proliferating his philanthropic philosophy.

Addressing work discrimination head-on

Unlike many CEOs in the California tech sphere, Benioff has not made any attempt to fade into the background regarding social issues plaguing the industry and society in general. After initially balking at the idea that women weren’t receiving equal pay at his company, he launched an internal salary study, which proved damning. To address this and achieve “100 percent equality between men and women in pay and promotion”, Benioff made sweeping salary adjustments at Salesforce in mid 2015. Since then, he’s continued to emphasise the issue, and pushed through similar changes to address the company cultures and pay practices of a number of newly acquired businesses.

What we can take away

While Benioff is celebrated as a social activist and philanthropist as well as a CEO, his business efforts have clearly paid off, leaving him with a current personal net worth of $4.4 billion USD. Benioff’s example teaches us that business owners seeking wealth and success can and should focus on more than just the bottom line. Producing and selling a great product is only the beginning. A business is an extension of its leaders, its workers, and the community in which it operates. By expanding your focus to nurture and grow the entire system, you can create a fairer, wealthier, and more robust environment for everyone involved.