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Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, long a champion of San Francisco, keeps a low profile on the crisis facing downtown

Marc Benioff, Co-Chair, TIME, Chair and Co-CEO, Salesforce, speaks onstage at the TIME100 Summit 2022 at Jazz at Lincoln Center on June 7, 2022 in New York City. | Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME

Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff has long made a show of his love for San Francisco. He put all his super-salesman charm behind his local passions, whether it was championing a skyscraper that now dominates the city skyline, shaming other billionaires who didn’t support increasing taxes to benefit the homeless, or pledging hundreds of millions of his own money to charity, including $410 million to UCSF. 

And his company, a pioneer of the “software-as-a-service” industry, has similarly been a major force in the city, helping spur the local tech sector with acquisitions and spin-outs on its way to becoming San Francisco’s largest private employer and a significant philanthropist in its own right.

Fittingly, Dreamforce–Salesforce’s giant annual conference, which starts Tuesday–grew into something of a symbol of the city’s tech makeover, shutting down entire city blocks and drawing headliners ranging from Metallica to Barack Obama.

Insiders say that in-person attendance this year will be about 40,000 people, with many more watching online. It will be the largest convention in San Francisco since Covid started, though still far smaller than the 170,000-person event of pre-pandemic years, when the cost of hotel rooms could skyrocket to $2,000 a night. 

The company says the return of Dreamforce shows its commitment to the future of San Francisco, and Benioff on Monday is announcing a grant for San Francisco Unified School District, following up on a $100 million pledge he made a decade ago. 

Since the pandemic began, Benioff and his wife Lynne  have made $177.7 million in philanthropic contributions to the Bay Area, compared to $146.4 million outside the Bay Area, according to a Salesforce spokesperson. San Francisco contributions included $15 million to the new Tunnel Tops park and $7 million to restore China Beach.

At the same time, Benioff has remained conspicuously absent on the role Salesforce will play in the most severe crisis his hometown has faced in recent decades: the disappearance of office workers from downtown. Like most software firms, Salesforce isn’t requiring workers to come to the office anymore, and it has unloaded much of its San Francisco real estate. 

Where in the world the 10,000 people who once worked in Salesforce’s downtown SF offices might end up seems to be anybody’s guess. As for Benioff, his private jet records—he travels in a Gulfstream 650er, the same model as Elon Musk—show him in Hawaii much of the time. He rarely mentions San Francisco anymore on his  busy Twitter handle. Once easily reachable to local reporters, he avails himself much less now. (Salesforce said he couldn’t participate in this story due to a busy pre-Dreamforce schedule.) 

San Francisco In His Blood

San Francisco civic leadership runs in Benioff’s family. In his 2019 autobiography Trailblazer, he writes about how much he adored his grandfather Marvin Lewis, an attorney who served an 11-year stint on the Board of Supervisors and left his mark as a champion of public transit and a father of BART.

Former San Francisco supervisor Marvin Lewis, standing second from right, is honored for his pioneering work for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system on Feb. 6, 1986. His grandson Marc Benioff, seated at right, looks on. | Mike Maloney/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Lewis also inspired Benioff’s compassion towards the homeless. Benioff writes of going on regular walking tours with his grandfather, who would hand out $20 bills to homeless people on Market Street, “a considerable sum to give to a stranger back then.”

Benioff credits his grandfather with inspiring him to be a new type of business mogul: “the Activist CEO,” where “taking a stand is not optional.”

For a long time, Benioff targeted his activism towards San Francisco. In Trailblazer, he touts his involvement in Prop C, a ballot measure that levied an additional tax on large businesses, the proceeds going towards solving homelessness.

SF’s tech billionaires brawled publicly when Prop C was put on the ballot in 2018, and the juxtaposition of tech money and the city’s chronic homelessness problems made national headlines

Benioff not only spent  $7.9 million of his own and Salesforce’s money to support the tax, he also threw himself into the campaign with tweets, media appearances and speeches. At one point, he famously insinuated business leaders who weren’t for Prop C were selfish, saying that “You’re either for the homeless and for the kids and for the hospitals, or you’re for yourself.”

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce (right) and Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti (left), attend the annual meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on May 24, 2022. Benioff credits his grandfather with inspiring him to be a new type of business mogul: “the Activist CEO,” where “taking a stand is not optional.” | Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The measure, which was failing before Benioff became involved, eventually passed by a wide margin, but its effects remain controversial and critics grumbled privately about the software executive's pious proselytizing.

Prop C's proponents said they appreciated Benioff's willingness to go to bat for an issue with no easy answers, and pointed out that the homeless population has decreased in SF while it's increased in other Bay Area cities.

"There are lots of other things that are easier to fund, but he was willing to stick his neck out for this even if there are no easy quick returns and he was going to catch flak for it," said Dr. Margot Kushel, Director of Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at UCSF. "He's committed and cares deeply."

Like his grandfather, Benioff was intent on leaving a physical mark on San Francisco. That project was Salesforce Tower, a skyscraper comically taller than all other buildings in the city. Benioff spent years on the project and was personally involved in minute design details.

“I also wanted the tower to make a powerful statement of loyalty to my hometown,” he writes in Trailblazer. “With this tower, we were planting Salesforce’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco permanently. We were sending the message that we were here to stay.”

Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff speaks during the grand opening of the Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in San Francisco, Calif., Tuesday, May 22, 2018. | Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group via Getty Images

The Pandemic Strikes

Before Covid, Salesforce had cornered a section of the newly rebranded “East Cut” neighborhood south of Market Street and turned it into a bustling corporate village.

But once the pandemic hit, the area became a new sort of urban wilderness—so much so that at one point a confused young mountain lion was spotted roaming around.

Since then, Salesforce—along with many other tech companies—has been systematically slashing its local real estate holdings. It canceled a lease on an unbuilt tower earlier last year, and then put up half of one of its existing towers for lease. This year it put up half of another tower it owns for lease. At the same time, Salesforce has been acquiring space outside the city, including leasing a corporate wellness center in Santa Cruz.

In March, Mayor London Breed held a press event at Salesforce Park where she cited Salesforce as one of twenty-some local  companies with a “commitment to implement policies to bring employees back to offices”. 

In reality, Salesforce has not issued any mandates about going back to the office. While the company hasn’t decided to go full remote like other tech companies—over 50% of public companies headquartered in SF are allowing all office workers to be remote for the foreseeable future—co-CEO Bret Taylor said in May that the company was listing jobs by time zone, not location.

And return-to-office mandates are not on the horizon: Benioff said recently at an event in New York City that “office mandates are never going to work.” 

Office workers walk to their jobs in front of Salesforce Tower on Thursday, April 11, 2019. | Paul Chinn/The SF Chronicle via Getty Images | Source: Paul Chinn/The SF Chronicle via Getty Images
Michele Schneider, senior vice president of Global Workplace Services for Salesforce, demonstrates how a receptionist will notify employees that their meals are ready to be collected at the Salesforce East on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. In late 2020, Salesforce was considering opening its doors to a limited number of employees. | Paul Chinn/The SF Chronicle via Getty Images

On a sunny afternoon the week before Dreamforce, Salesforce Park was abuzz with talk of goals, teams and other corporate chatter. But employees there said the tower and park were unusually busy due to the impending conference, and confirmed that there hasn’t been any top-down guidance on how often to come into work. One employee said he came in twice a week but had a coworker who had only come in once since the pandemic started.

Nearby restaurants said Salesforce employees have been more elusive than those from other nearby companies, such as consulting firm Bain and law firm Covington & Burling.

“We do catering for Bain and Accenture about once a week, but the last time I did catering for Salesforce was about six weeks ago,” said Alphonse Verkler, who manages the La Fromagerie cheese shop down the street from Salesforce Tower.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff delivers the keynote address during the Dreamforce 2012 conference at the Moscone Center on September 19, 2012. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Several political insiders note that Benioff, while still philanthropic, has been disengaged in discussions about the city’s future. Benioff and his wife haven’t contributed to any San Francisco political campaigns or ballot measures since 2018, according to the city’s historic campaign finance data. (One reason may be his ownership of Time magazine: after purchasing the storied title, Benioff swore off political giving outside supporting homelessness initiatives.) Salesforce has contributed to several ballot measures in recent years.

His Twitter feed offers a glimpse of where his mind is more engaged these days. A prolific Tweeter, he only mentioned San Francisco 16 times on Twitter in 2021, compared to Hawaii (95 times). In terms of other interests, Benioff’s Twitter often mentions climate (37 mentions), trees (104 mentions), and of course Salesforce (193 mentions).

A fellow software executive who has known Benioff for a long time speculated that he hadn’t abandoned the city so much as moved on to broader and different philanthropic causes.

Benioff himself has said as much.

“I’m pivoting in my life,” he told a Fortune reporter in 2021. “Today, a lot of my visions and meditations and thoughts are much more about climate change.”  

In the same interview, he quashed a longstanding rumor that he wants to be mayor of San Francisco after his business career is over. 

I look at life in four quadrants, and I’m kind of moving into quadrant four,” he told Fortune

For local residents who resent the high prices, corporate culture and fancy skyscrapers the tech industry has brought to town, that might be just as well.

But Alex Tourk, a longtime San Francisco politico and principal at Ground Floor Public Affairs, counts himself among those who hope he's not moving too far. With the challenging economic realities of the post-pandemic world, he said, "we certainly need his continued leadership and commitment.”