Marc Benioff boosts Mail Force's PPE airlift campaign

How an Indian guru called the hugging saint taught me the life-changing power of giving, says philanthropist Marc Benioff who is a vital partner in the Mail Force’s PPE airlift campaign

  • Marc Benioff had a ‘spiritual awakening ‘ while in a remote town in India where he met a Hindu spiritual guru
  • Today, 55-year-old Mr Benioff is worth £5.5 billion thanks in part to the success of his Salesforce company 
  • Mr Benioff is also one of the world’s greatest philanthropists thanks to the encounter he had while in India  
  • For further information about the Mail Force charity and to donate, click here 

It was hardly the place Marc Benioff ever imagined would be the setting for what he now describes as ‘an incredible awakening’. Incense hung heavy in the air as the sound of chanting filled the room. He was in a remote town in India and seated opposite a Hindu spiritual guru called Mata Amritanandamayi, revered as ‘the hugging saint’ by her followers.

Mr Benioff, a Silicon Valley pioneer, was already wildly successful. A millionaire by 25, he was the youngest ever vice-president of software giant Oracle, drove a Ferrari and seemed to have it all.

But in his heart he knew that something was missing.

He had taken a three-month sabbatical from Oracle to travel the world. ‘It was like a scene from a movie,’ he recalled. ‘We’re in the middle of nowhere in this tiny Indian village and everybody’s dressed in white and orange and there’s incense wafting.

‘I’m with a friend who is Indian. He’s telling her [the guru] about the challenges in his life and his struggles and about this business that he was going to start. I thought he was going to ask her to invest, he was quite aggressive.

‘Then she looked right at me and said, ‘In your quest to change the world, don’t forget to do something for somebody else.’ ‘

Today, 55-year-old Mr Benioff (pictured with his wife in 2017) is worth £5.5 billion thanks to the success of the company he founded shortly after that encounter, Salesforce, which employs 50,000 people around the globe including more than 1,500 in the UK 

It was a comment that would forever change his life.

Today, 55-year-old Mr Benioff is worth £5.5 billion thanks to the success of the company he founded shortly after that encounter, Salesforce, which employs 50,000 people around the globe including more than 1,500 in the UK. His firm is the world leader in ‘customer relationship management software’ which uses the cloud to help businesses organise information about their customers and has an annual revenue of £13 billion.

He is also one of the world’s greatest philanthropists thanks to the encounter with the woman he calls simply ‘Amma’ (‘Mother’). ‘It was she who introduced me to the idea, and possibility, of giving back to the world by pursuing my career ambitions,’ Mr Benioff said. ‘I realised that I didn’t have to make a choice between doing business and doing good. I could do both.’

Last week, a consortium led by our sister paper the Daily Mail, and including Salesforce and UK asset management firm Marshall Wace, set up a charity called the Mail Force Charity to tackle the urgent shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the Covid-19 emergency in Britain.

The tech tycoon has already donated £1 million of his fortune to support the charity along with another £1 million from Salesforce. In total he has spent around £20 million sourcing and supplying PPE to hospitals around the world.

HERE’S HOW TO DONATE 

Mail Force Charity has been launched with one aim to help support NHS staff, volunteers and care workers fight back against Covid-1 in the UK.

Mail Force is a separate charity established and supported by the Daily Mail and General Trust. 

The money raised will fund essential equipment required by the NHS and care workers. 

This equipment is vital in protecting the heroic staff whilst they perform their fantastic work in helping the UK overcome this pandemic.

If we raise more money than is needed for vital Covid-1 equipment, we will apply all funds to support the work of the NHS in other ways.

Click the button below to make a donation:

If the button is not visible, click here 

But his generous contribution is only the tip of the iceberg.

The man the New York Times calls ‘the hyperconnected billionaire’ has used his personal friendships at the highest echelons of the global business world to succeed where governments and bureaucrats have failed; to source and then transport high-quality PPE to those who need it most, including here in the UK.

Mr Benioff, who along with his wife Lynne donated £200 million to build two children’s hospitals in their native San Francisco, phoned friends like Daniel Zhang, the chief executive of Alibaba – the giant e-commerce marketplace and China’s equivalent of Amazon – who immediately offered to help.

He also called on long-term business associates such as Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, whose son Richard helped to arrange to transport the PPE at a discounted rate.

‘We have two dozen dedicated employees who have canvassed the world for PPE and built a database using our technology,’ he said. ‘We know where to get everything and we have all types of modes of transportation.’

Mr Benioff spoke to The Mail on Sunday via Zoom from his home overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he has been in lockdown during the pandemic with his wife and their two children.

Like most of us, corporate wear has disappeared and been replaced by a casual blue sweatshirt and baseball cap.

A giant bear of a man – he is 6ft 5in – he could not be more different from the traditional image of a nerdy Silicon Valley billionaire.

He is quick to laugh, affable and charming, and clearly passionate about the work he is doing during lockdown and particularly the work of the Mail Force Charity.

‘I think the world is being shown a new set of values we can live by. It’s an evolution to truth, an evolution to a level of unity for humanity,’ he said.

‘This virus does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, or gender, or sexual orientation or the colour of your skin.

‘The virus goes after all of humanity with equanimity, so that is unifying for us to realise that we are one community.

‘I’m here in San Francisco and I’m perched on a cliff and when I look out the air has never been clearer, the water has never been bluer, there’s animal life landing here on the beaches in California that we haven’t seen for a long time. We’re being presented with a new level of harmony with the planet and being asked, ‘Can we achieve a new balance in our lives and what will that mean?’

‘At the same time we have our hearts open to the tremendous suffering that’s happening in the world. So many families have been affected, so many people have lost their lives and that’s first and foremost why we’re doing this work with PPE, because of human suffering.’

Indian spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi (centre), popularly know as ‘Amma’ (The Mother) or also as ‘The Hugging Saint,’ hugs a woman during a followers’s gathering in 2016

At least 50 employees at Salesforce have been affected by coronavirus – so this fight is personal.

For Mr Benioff, philanthropy has shaped his beliefs since that meeting with the guru in India (she remains a friend to this day, along with some even better-known spiritual advisers, including the Dalai Lama).

When he founded Salesforce in 1999, Mr Benioff put the notion of giving back at the very core of his company – a revolutionary idea back then.

He created what he called the 1-1-1 model, where Salesforce pledged to donate 1 per cent of its revenue, 1 per cent of its product and 1 per cent of its employees’ time to the community and charitable acts.

To date the company has given £263 million in grants, employees have donated five million volunteer hours and the company has handed out products to 46,000 non-profit organisations.

More than 10,000 companies in 100 countries have now joined his 1-1-1 model of philanthropy. ‘I think business is the greatest platform for change,’ he said.

‘When you have businesses with all of these relationships – customer relationships, employee relationships, vendors, partnerships – you can do amazing things.

‘The Mail Force Charity is a great example of this. You start to put things together and things happen.’

Mr Benioff has always been a person who makes things happen. He credits his father Russell, who ran a string of six womenswear shops called Stuart’s Apparel in northern California, for instilling his work ethic.

A quiet child he became ‘obsessed’ with computers at the dawn of the internet age, buying his first computer with the money saved from a part-time job cleaning a jewellery store.

At 14 he wrote a simple computer program called ‘How to Juggle’, was paid around £50 for it – and was hooked.

The following year he started writing video games.

The Mail Force consignment of PPE medical equipment is pictured in Shanghai as it is loaded aboard a Mail chartered plane to London on Tuesday 

Mr Benioff’s first experience of the UK was at 16 when his parents allowed him to travel solo to Scotland to research Glamis Castle, the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and the setting for Macbeth. ‘I wanted to include it in a game so arrangements were supposedly made. I went there but the castle was closed,’ he said.

Even at 16 he was determined. ‘I got talking to this person and they agreed to open the castle and walk me through it.

‘I spent the night in Scotland and got a long train back to London and my mum lost track of me.’

In fact, his mother, Joelle, had arranged for her son to stay with friends in Leeds.

When Mr Benioff went ‘missing’ she frantically called Scotland Yard: ‘They found out where I was and I reappeared so all was OK.’

After university he joined Oracle, the software company, and rose swiftly through the ranks.

Then came his moment of personal crisis. In his book Trailblazer, published last year, Mr Benioff wrote: ‘I had the greatest job I could ever have imagined at Oracle, one of the fastest-growing software companies in the world.

‘I had been promoted to vice-president, the youngest person ever in that position. I had the multi-million dollar salary, stock and perks to go with it.

‘I was supposedly living the American dream but I was lost. I did not feel happy or fulfilled.’

He took three months off and travelled to, among other places, Hawaii where he swam with dolphins and came up with the idea for Salesforce, which he started in a rented one-bedroom flat in San Francisco.

The company HQ is now the city’s tallest building, the 326-metre Salesforce Tower.

While most companies would have the executive offices on the top floor, Mr Benioff created a coffee shop and viewing area for everyone to enjoy.

His philanthropic efforts are mind-blowing. He has started a charity committed to planting a trillion trees inspired by one of his heroes, English chimpanzee expert and environmentalist Dame Jane Goodall. And he works closely with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge whom he ‘admires enormously’: ‘I’m so impressed with what Prince William’s doing for the environment, both of them are inspiring for the amount of philanthropy they are doing.’

He has never regretted his decision to put values before dollars.

Like business titans of previous ages – the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Rothschilds and Gettys, who used their vast personal fortunes to create lasting legacies in the shape of museums, hospitals and funding for education – Mr Benioff says he is proud of building a business focused on giving back while inspiring other business leaders in the process:

‘CEOs need to be given permission to be focused on things other than their earnings per share,’ he said. ‘At the end of their life, when their obituary is written, nobody is going to mention the shareholder returns they had during their time as CEO.

‘They’re going to talk about things they have done for other people and for their family and who they were in the world.

‘I think moments like this are a good time to remind people that life is finite and you are not going to be here for ever and that it’s important to help other people. That remains the most important thing in the world.

‘Traditional capitalism was: The business of business is business. Our approach is: The business of business is improving the state of the world, and the Mail Force Charity is an example of that.’

The full kit: Nurse Miss Burns clad head to foot in the new PPE after it arrived at Milton Keynes University Hospital 

He became aware of the global shortage of PPE in March when Sam Hawgood, the chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco – an organisation to which Mr Benioff and his wife donated £200 million for two children’s hospitals in 2010 – raised the alarm.

‘They were running out of PPE in the emergency rooms,’ he said. ‘So we started getting involved and when the situation exploded in New York we made some aggressive efforts and chartered planes from China and brought in millions of pieces to the US.’

He mentioned his efforts in a text message to Lord Rothermere, the proprietor of this newspaper and a long-time friend: ‘I said, ‘Well, here’s what we’ve been up to’ and he immediately replied back saying that the UK needed the same kind of focused effort from the private sector.

‘I was able to call a friend of mine named Daniel Zhang, the CEO of Alibaba. He’s probably the most connected retailer in all of China. He knew where all the PPE was and he said, ‘Don’t worry Marc, I’m going to take care of this.’ And he made all these things happen and that’s why I say business is a great platform for change.

‘Our relationship with the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday is a great example of that. I am very proud of the fact that we all came together to support the Mail Force Charity, which is doing such great work.’

How would he like to be remembered? ‘That I loved my family and loved my business and loved my community and did what I could to make things better.’

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