BUSINESS
06/21/2016 02:42 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2016

This CEO Is Famous For His Social Activism, But He's Silent On Trump

Though Marc Benioff fought for LGBT rights, he's mum on the presumptive GOP nominee.
Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff has made a name for himself as an activist CEO, but has been silent on Donald Trump'
Mike Blake / Reuters
Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff has made a name for himself as an activist CEO, but has been silent on Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

A few major companies and chief executives are starting to mobilize against Donald Trump, but one CEO remains notably mum. Marc Benioff, the outspoken “social activist” leader of software company Salesforce, has so far said next to nothing about the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

Pressed repeatedly by The Huffington Post for his thoughts on Trump, whose stances against Muslims, immigrants and women have earned him, most recently, the ire of tech powerhouse Apple, Benioff has declined comment.

Just last month, The Wall Street Journal dubbed the 51-year-old Benioff an “activist CEO,” a new kind of corporate leader unafraid to take on the kinds of controversial issues typical corporate chieftains fear to touch. Over the past two years, Benioff not only aggressively spoke out against anti-LGBT laws in Indiana, Georgia and North Carolina, he rallied other CEOs to his side. He's also become outspoken on the issue of equal pay for women.

“Mr. Benioff [is] a master promoter in the movement toward social activism among American chief executives, one that’s increasingly influential,” Monica Langley wrote in the Journal.

The thing is, coming out against a presidential candidate is a far riskier undertaking for a CEO than championing the causes of LGBT rights or women’s equality, already popular with tech company employees and customers. (Trump's stance on LGBT issues is murky. He's said he does not support same-sex marriage, but has been outspoken about his support for "the gays.")

The number of people who will stop buying your products or dealing with you because you support LGBT rights is not a real problem, Gautum Mukunda, a professor at Harvard Business School, told The Huffington Post. But there are a lot of people who are going to vote for Donald Trump.

Even if Clinton wins in a landslide -- 60 percent of the vote, say -- you’re still talking about 40 percent of the voting population, he noted. “That’s a gigantic portion of the U.S,” said Mukunda, author of the book Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.

We’ve arrived at a point, exemplified by leaders like Benioff, where it’s OK for businesspeople to oppose certain policies and support social issues like LGBT rights. But opposing an entire political party, which is what it would mean to speak out against the Republican presidential candidate, “is a very big step,” Mukunda said.

Besides, would a CEO's support or opposition actually sway voters? Trump supporters say they want a businessperson in the White House, but they've also got a strong anti-establishment bent, and it's not clear if they'd actually listen to any true corporate leader's opinion on the candidate. 

Though he’s stayed silent on Trump, Benioff has opened his wallet to Hillary Clinton. In March, he gave $2,700 to the presumptive Democratic nominee, but that same month he told CNN he wasn’t sure Trump would be terrible for business. (A recent analysis from Moody’s that examined Trump’s economic proposals said a Trump presidency would throw the global economy into recession.)

Formerly a registered Republican, Benioff is now unaffiliated with either party. Since June 2015, he has donated to a handful of Democratic politicians, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer and California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is running to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer when she steps down later this year. He has given money to Republicans, too. In March, he donated to both Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader. 

Trump touts his record and skill as a businessman, but executives privately express disdain for him.
David Becker / Reuters
Trump touts his record and skill as a businessman, but executives privately express disdain for him.

Meanwhile, Benioff’s contemporaries are tentatively starting to act and speak out against Trump, as liberal activists pressure businesses to take a stand.

Apple is reportedly withholding support and funding from the Republican presidential convention because of Trump’s comments on women, immigrants and minorities, according to sources quoted in Politico over the weekend. Coca Cola also scaled back support for the convention -- giving just $75,000 this year as compared to $665,000 in 2012. 

Microsoft is not giving any cash to the GOP convention, just technical support. The Redmond, Washington-based company is doing both for Democrats. Microsoft declined to comment further on Trump when asked by HuffPost.

On Monday, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky reportedly said Trump’s nativist policies -- like building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico -- are “on the wrong side of history.” 

Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman, a major GOP donor, has been calling out Trump for a while. Whitman reportedly compared him to Hitler and Mussolini earlier this month in a meeting with GOP leaders.

Facebook chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg, a big proponent of immigration, obliquely criticized Trump at a recent conference.

“I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others. For blocking free expression, for slowing immigration, reducing trade and in some cases around the world even cutting access to the internet,” Zuckerberg said. “It takes courage to choose hope over fear.” 

Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti turned down Trump ad money. 

These seem like small steps, but are pretty remarkable. Mukunda who's written and studied presidential campaigns extensively, could not recall a major company taking a strong position on a presidential candidate.

"If you talk to senior businesspeople, genuinely successful ones, the level of contempt [for Trump] is amazing. They’ll tell you stories, saying, 'This guy’s a moron,'" Mukunda said.

Benioff first waded into the turbulent world of social politics in March 2015, when he threatened to scale back his company’s investment in Indiana over a so-called “religious freedom” bill that allowed businesses to discriminate against employees and customers based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He had unique clout in the state: Salesforce became the state’s largest tech employer when it acquired the Indianapolis-based marketing software firm ExactTarget in 2013.

A day after Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed the bill into law, Benioff ramped up his opposition, vowing to cancel all Salesforce programs that would require customers or employees to travel to Indiana. Soon after, he promised to pay to relocate any employees living in the state.

Between appearances on CNN and CNBC during which he strongly criticized the law and its backers, Benioff rallied other big-name companies and executives behind him. With his prodding, Apple, PayPal and NASCAR stood up against the law. After a week, the governor signed a revised version of the law that included protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Benioff had won.

“I was completely blown away,” he told HuffPost in April 2015. “This is really the first time that we have started something, and the reason it got started -- the reason it was successful -- is because it was so many different CEOs banding together.”

For about a year, Benioff stayed relatively quiet. Meanwhile, mostly Republican lawmakers began pushing similar anti-LGBT bills in state legislatures around the country.

In February, when one of those bills passed in the Georgia Senate, Benioff once again strapped on his boxing gloves. After battling one of the bill’s co-sponsors on Twitter -- Benioff is a prolific tweeter -- he renewed his call to corporate leaders to rally against the measure, which he said was pushed by “bigots.” Under pressure from the more than 400 companies that came out against the bill, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) vetoed it in March.

That same month, a new front in Benioff’s fight opened up. A day after North Carolina lawmakers held a special session to draft and pass its own law legalizing discrimination against LGBT people in the name of religious freedom, Benioff started making calls and sending emails.

Facing fierce criticism from a corporate base emboldened by the Georgia victory, legislators in North Carolina amended its so-called “bathroom bill” to add protections for some queer people. But, as the nickname implies, the law left in place measures meant to keep transgender individuals from using the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity. 

Still, Benioff’s multi-pronged policy war cemented his status as an “activist CEO.”

This February, Benioff hosted a dinner in Beverly Hills for many activists, executives and actors to discuss equality. There, Benioff pushed Tesla and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk to stand up before the room and talk about gender pay equality. Musk, admitting he hadn’t thought about the issue much before, told HuffPost later that night he’d consider reviewing pay at his company to make sure it was equitable.

“Marc rallies CEOs when business and trade groups are much slower to act, particularly on noneconomic issues,” Dow Chemical chief Andrew Liveris, who weighed in against the North Carolina law, told The Wall Street Journal.

Now that a presidential nominee is espousing the kinds of policies that seem to run counter to the notions of equality and fairness Benioff spoke so movingly of at that winter dinner, it seems a good time to see how far Benioff could take those skills.

UPDATE: 7:54 p.m.  Four hours after this story was published, Benioff posted a tweet noting his longstanding support for Hillary Clinton:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the senator for whose seat Kamala Harris is running. 

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