When a CEO changes legislation – for social good

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In Silicon Valley, it’s standard fare for a company campus to have cafeterias, break out spaces, flexible hours and unlimited leave that you’re too busy to ever take. So let’s say you’re a software engineer and some big technology companies are vying for your talent, what’s going to make the difference?

Social impact, according to Salesforce.

I’ll level with you here: CRMs aren’t exactly what I imagine to be proponents of great change. They’re necessary – crucial, really – to making high-scale customer-facing businesses run better and more efficiently. But a CRM company just doesn’t spell radical change to most people.

But then there’s Salesforce.

Last year when Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was first proposed, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff became an unlikely standard-bearer of opposition. The Act would have allowed corporations and individuals to argue that their religious expression had been “substantially burdened” as a defence in legal proceedings. By extension, the LGBT community would no longer have legal recourse against discrimination, for instance, if they were refused service based on their sexuality.

The day before the Act was first signed Benioff tweeted that Salesforce would be forced to decrease investment in Indiana due to employee and customer outrage over the measure.

After now Vice President Mike Pence signed the Act, at least one family-owned restaurant announced that they would refuse to cater same-sex weddings.

Benioff took action, tweeting: “Today we are cancelling all programs that require our customers or employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.” As CEO of the state’s largest tech employer, they were fightin’ words to say the least. Benioff joined (or rallied) six other Indiana tech employers in a letter imploring the Governor to rescind the Act. He also emailed some high-placed friends, including Max Levchin, chief executive of online financial firm Affirm and co-founder of PayPal.

(Levchin went on to organise a joint statement to lawmakers nationwide urging for more protections against discrimination. More than 70 top tech executives signed, from an impressive roll-call of companies like AirBnb, Netflix, Twitter and eBay, among others.)

The next week Benioff announced, via Twitter of course, that $50,000 relocation packages would be extended to any Salesforce employees who were uncomfortable with remaining in Indiana, (the best part of this was that his PR Director was cooking dinner in her kitchen when she saw the live tweet pop up, mayhem ensued). Salesforce confirmed that it was organising re-location packages for several employees. The backlash was on, and the stakes were becoming very real.

A week later, Pence approved a revised version of the Act banning businesses from refusing service because of a customer’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

This story is an incredible example of how large companies can translate their economic power into political representation for employees and consumers – for people. Think of it this way: the most likely collective that people are a part of is their workplace. Where employers can represent the general interests of their employees they demonstrate that they value their employees at a human, social  level, and that employers are more than just a pit stop for a paycheque.

But Salesforce aren’t just a one-hit wonder on the social impact charts. Since their inception they’ve instituted what they’ve termed the 1-1-1 model. They pledge 1% of their profit, product and time to making positive changes in the world. So $128+ million in grants, 1.6 million hours of community service, and 29,000 product donations later, they’re showing that 1% may not sound like a lot, but it is a big difference.

Salesforce knows that as employers they offer meaning and identity to their employees’ lives. After your personal relationships, your workplace exerts the most influence over your life, and social impact that's making a difference is probably the best recruitment strategy you could implement.

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