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CEO Uses Company's Clout To Get Involved In Controversial State Measures

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When North Carolina passed House Bill 2 in March, limiting the civil rights protections of LGBT people, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff decided he had to get involved. Benioff felt a similar call to action last year in Indiana. Employees at the software company had sent their CEO a barrage of emails urging him to use the company's economic leverage in the fight against a controversial religious freedom bill that many felt allowed discrimination against same-sex couples. Benioff says he quickly learned two things.

MARC BENIOFF: Number one, you know, we've got to keep an eye out for our employees in states where we have a dramatic presence. And two, I got a sense that CEOs have the ability to use their businesses as a platform for change and that if you want more of our employees and more of our customers to come to your state, you've got to have a business-friendly state.

GREENE: Benioff then went on to challenge a similar bill in Georgia. And now in North Carolina he's rolled out a tested strategy - sending staff to make his case to state officials, working with activist groups and calling on other corporate leaders to act as well. But one question I asked Mr. Benioff is - what if a CEO's sense of social mission conflicts with the views of employees?

If you did not agree with this North Carolina law, but let's say the large majority of people who worked for you in the state of North Carolina said Mr. Benioff, we actually like this law. We're on the other side. If you're looking out for employees, you might back down and say, you know, this is not a fight I'm going to have because I'm there for my employees first.

BENIOFF: Oh, that's 100 percent right. This is all about my employees. This is not my personal advocacy. On a personal level, my biggest commitment is to children's health, where I've built two children's hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland. So this issue is not my personal issue. This is not about me. This is about something that I really don't know that much about to be honest with you.

I know about how to create a great company. And I can tell you if you want to create a great company, you'd better be on the side of your employees. And you'd better be committed to being their partner and in many different types of situations that are life situations. And this is one of them.

GREENE: Let me ask you this, though. Lawmakers, politicians - they're held accountable to the public when they are not seen as doing something for the public good. Doesn't that make it dangerous for companies and CEOs to be doing stuff like this because who are you accountable to?

BENIOFF: Well, I think that's old thinking, honestly. I am quite accountable to many different stakeholders, including my shareholders, my large investors, to my board of directors, to my employees, to my customers, to my partners, to the communities that I live. I live in a city called San Francisco. And it is very much a city that is activist-oriented. And I'll tell you, in our city, people hold you accountable for doing the right thing.

GREENE: I mean, the lieutenant governor of North Carolina Dan Forest almost mocked the idea of a couple executives from San Francisco just calling their buddies and imposing a different way of thinking on a state that's far away. And he called you a corporate bully. Why is he wrong?

BENIOFF: Well, he's wrong because it's the major employers in his state who have told him that he is not in dialogue with them. I could go down the list of the ten largest employers in North Carolina who are in his office saying, you've got to change this. And why are you creating this kind of environment where you are resisting business? You are resisting economic growth. Why would you do this?

GREENE: And for people who see this new role for CEOs and say, you know, even if you're fighting for your employees - for people who say they're worried that they have people from the business world who are sort of helping to lead these debates instead of policymakers and politicians who were actually voted in by the public, I mean, how do you respond to that?

BENIOFF: We are a country of great ideas. We're a country of innovation. And we're also about - a country of change and shifting. And because our government leaders tend to be a little weaker than they were, CEOs have to step up and be a little stronger and have a bigger voice, which is what exactly is happening in these states.

GREENE: That's the voice of Marc Benioff. He's the CEO of Salesforce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.