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Dreamforce 2021 - Benioff calls on his 'Trustblazers' to help repair the world in the Vaccine Economy

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 22, 2021
A world in crisis. Who do we turn to? Trustblazers, according to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in an impassioned cri de coeur of a Dreamforce address.


The world faces a crisis of trust and it’s incumbent on Trailblazers to step up and become Trustblazers!

That was the rallying cry from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to his ‘Ohana’ as he kicked off his Dreamforce conference keynote address.

This is far from the first time that the tech CEO has chosen to use his highest profile speech of the year to customers in this way. Back in 2018, I noted in an article entitled Benioff takes no prisoners in activist call to arms:

It’s fair to say that in 16 years of covering this event, I think I’ve rarely seen him so impassioned…the opening chunk of this Dreamforce keynote was more akin to a tub-thumping declaration of societal and political intent than the opening address to a tech conference.

A lot has happened in the world since then. Benioff’s own macro-concerns and interests have become even more clearly articulated, particularly around issues such as sustainability, education and equality. And for its part, Salesforce has continued to take some clear stands on socially controversial issues, most recently offering to help concerned employees to move out of Texas and away from that state’s draconian new abortion laws.

But yesterday’s keynote was a summation of a global worldview informed by a series of pain points and, inevitably, with the long shadow of COVID hanging over it. As I noted earlier in the week, this Dreamforce may be scaled down in physical numbers, but its ambition to debate and shape the future is not.

Benioff’s thesis was straightforward and might on paper be feared to be downbeat and pessimistic as he highlighted crisis after crisis facing the world as it emerges from the pandemic. But every crisis in this new world can be an opportunity for change, he told his audience:

This is something that we kind of relish as Trailblazers because we want to transform that world into a world of trust. We are Trustblazers, it is our job. What we want to do is to be able to go and repair the world and to add that trust back into it… We do what we can. We realise we cannot do everything. None of us can do everything, but we can do something. We can do something. And when we see a problem as Trailblazers, we know that there is something that we are going to do.

Crisis count

The pandemic is a useful case in point here:

We're in a pandemic crisis. As Trailblazers, we responded by building contact management systems and contact tracing systems. We responded by building vaccine management systems. We responded by doing whatever we needed to do to help the world. It was a huge struggle. As Trailblazers, we also went out and we landed airplanes with PPE -  we landed one yesterday in French Polynesia, we've also landed one in India and Mongolia, in London, in Detroit in New York - and we've helped manage 100 million doses of the vaccine. We have helped to monitor 235 contact tracing cases.

Then there’s the climate crisis to be contended with, something that sits dangerously close to home in Salesforce’s home state of California. Benioff said:

If I was standing on this stage, just a couple weeks ago, the air quality here in San Francisco probably wouldn't let me do this presentation because we had 2 million acres of wildfires going on in California alone. We had fires all over the world and we had floods because we are in a sustainability crisis.

Benioff also looked to his second home of Hawaii and the setting up of atmospheric CO2 measuring equipment there by CalTech scientist Charles Keeling as far back as 1958 to further his point:

Every single day since that moment in 1958, CO2 has risen in the atmosphere. Why is that? Well, one reason is we've released about 100 gigatonnes of carbon since the first Industrial Revolution, through fossil fuels and emissions, and that has raised the CO2 levels. And we did something else. Our planet had 6 trillion trees on it. We've deforested half our planet to three trillion trees. Each trillion trees sequester is about 200 gigatonnes of carbon, so we’ve also emitted 600 gigatonnes of carbon through deforestation.

So when we want to know why Charles Keeling's graph is going up or why it's getting warmer, it's fossil fuels, it's emissions, it's also deforestation. It's also several other things. But this is an amazing moment. As Trailblazers, we have to ask, what are we going to do? It's one of the reasons why we started to plant a trillion trees. It's one of the reasons why we built our Sustainability Cloud and why Salesforce has already become a company that is net zero and fully renewable.

Then there’s the ongoing workforce crisis, triggered in part by COVID-necessitated work-from-home responses by organizations around the world. This one’s also close to home for Benioff as he quipped:

You know, I used to have a tower. I don't know if you know this - I had a tower. It’s around here somewhere, like right over there.

But while the Salesforce Tower still dominates the San Francisco skyline, today it is very, very far from being occupied to capacity. That’s something Benioff has in common with other CEOs who, when asked how many of their employees are coming back to the office, admit that the numbers are around the 15-20% mark at present:

Some of them have quit. There's a Great Resignation going on. What else happened?  Well, some of them moved. There's a Great Relocation going on. It's kind of astonishing actually, we have never had a workforce crisis quite like this.

And despite the best efforts of firms such as Salesforce, the battle against inequality continues, he added:

At a time of a workforce crisis, in the time of this sustainability crisis, and the time of the pandemic, we also have this inequality crisis because every race and every sexual orientation and every gender has had a different experience during these crises. As Trailblazers, we have compassion for that and we want to understand that, we want to have a response to that that brings more equality to inequality. We know that women are 1.8 times more vulnerable to lose their jobs in the pandemic. When you add all those things up, then we know we're in a trust crisis.

Building back

Downbeat enough for you? Perhaps, but flip this on its head and see it as a challenge and opportunity - to borrow a COVID cliché - to build back better. Benioff’s rallying cry is again commendably straightforward:

We have to work together. We have to find a way to transcend this trust crisis and as Trailblazers, we can feel it, we sense it out. Trust is the currency that we operate in. We're looking around for trust. We're looking at where is it, where is it not? And if it's not there, we're gonna figure out ways to seed it. How do we use it to cross this gap? How are we going to take the world where we are and Trailblazers where we are and fill that gap with trust?  How do we address this new world? How do we improve the state of the world? How do we repair the world? What actions will we take as Trailblazers to do that?

Each and every one of us can do something, he concluded, adding:

We do not all have to do everything, but we must do something.

My take

As I watched the keynote remotely, I had a Twitter message from an industry colleague, which read, ‘Could this get any more woke?’. It’s a cheap shot that irritated me immensely - and not for the first time at Dreamforce over the years. Personally I thought it was a well-judged address that faced up to world realities as we head into the Vaccine Economy, as well as, obviously, setting out the stall for the firm’s Trusted Enterprise messaging. And frankly, if tackling sustainability, economic and equality crises is something that’s too 'woke' for you, then Dreamforce really isn’t the event for you - and as I noted back in 2018, that's a shame for so many reasons…

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