Marc Benioff Spoke Out Through Raw Economic Power

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff
The Salesforce CEO proved that the best way to act on a controversial issue is to have the raw economic power to back up your words.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Photo credit: Salesforce

If there’s one thing that’s tough to beat when it comes to successful CEO Goodism, it’s raw economic power. Case in point: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Indiana.

When the $10 billion revenue tech giant acquired Indianapolis-based online marketing firm ExactTarget five years ago, it transformed the city into a Heartland tech capital almost overnight. Indy now hosts Salesforce’s second-biggest concentration of workers, behind only San Francisco, and the company’s occupation of the former Chase Tower downtown has beckoned many other tech firms to the Indiana capital.

But in 2015, Indiana’s state legislature passed a law that allowed businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers under religious freedom protection, and then-Governor Mike Pence signed it. Benioff wasn’t pleased.

“Today we are canceling all programs requiring our customers and employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination,” he tweeted.

Within days, a group of heavy-hitter local CEOs, including then-chief John Lechleiter of Eli Lilly and Tom Linebarger of Cummins, were trying to reconcile the new law with their companies’ stances, a city “human rights” ordinance and Benioff’s concerns.

“We were able to bring a certain pragmatism to the discussion about the law’s long-term impact on retention and attraction of talent for key economic sectors,” says Michael Huber, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, who headed a “war room” at his offices for a week as CEOs and others worked on a solution.

The “fix” was to amend the law to explicitly protect sexual orientation and gender identity, and Pence and the legislature agreed to it. While Salesforce executives weren’t entirely satisfied, they love Indianapolis as the company’s effective second headquarters.

“Indiana just really needed to indicate that it was going to be a state that fought for people’s rights and would be fair and just,” says Bob Stutz, CEO of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud operation in Indianapolis.

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