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Neelie Kroes, newest Salesforce board member, slams Brexit

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett May 19, 2016
Neelie Kroes, former European Commissioner, sat down with us at Salesforce World Tour London to discuss diversity, digital and why the UK needs Europe

Neelie Kroes at Salesforce WT London 2016 © Kevin Moran
Neelie Kroes listens to a World Tour attendee

Salesforce's official stance on the possibility of ‘Brexit’ after Britons vote next month on the country’s EU membership is firmly neutral – unlike tech giants Microsoft, HPE and SAP, which have all nailed their blue and gold colours to the mast – but the firm's newest board member perhaps unsurprisingly takes a more forceful view.

Former European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who officially took her seat on the Salesforce board this month, warns it’s crucial the UK remains part of Europe, for the good both of the technology industry and of the region as a whole. During an exclusive interview with diginomica at Salesforce World Tour London yesterday, she told us:

We badly need the UK way of thinking for a healthy prosperous development of the economy.

There’s still a different approach in how to tackle economic development in the north of Europe and the south. Sometimes it’s culture and sometimes it’s history. It’s the way of thinking about an economy and what the role of a government is, that is different in the southern economies.

Kroes has a stark message for those in the Brexit camp, who feel it’s all take and no give between the EU and UK at present.

The benefit of remaining, it’s not only for the other Member States, it’s also for the UK itself.

The thought that you can just move 90 degrees and turn away from the Continent and then you go to the US, that’s naive. The US is interested in the UK as the gateway to Europe. If the UK goes out of that scene, it’s a different ball game. I sincerely hope that a very wise decision is taken.

Salesforce's official line, however, is to stay out of the debate. It says:

The decision on whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU should be left to the citizens of the UK.

Joining Salesforce

Kroes certainly understands the importance of a united Europe, via her previous roles as European Commissioner for Competition, and then the Digital Agenda. No doubt it was her experience in the European market that saw Salesforce come knocking, and Kroes acknowledges that the European market is a challenge for the firm, as for other overseas companies.

But what attracted Kroes – who still into her seventies has the kind of hectic schedule that would make a 20-year old weep – to the board of a cloud business? She certainly didn’t need the work or the experience, having taken similar roles at firms as diverse as McDonald’s and P&O Cruises.

Answer: Salesforce’s reputation for philanthropy. She explains:

It’s a fascinating company. I’ve known Marc [Benioff] for quite some time, from when I was still engaged in the Competition portfolio. I was impressed by a company with clear principles and a very impressive human touch. It’s different from many other companies in that way, and fascinating in combining its work with the good of society.

That for me is the main issue for digital technology and the disruptive economy, it’s influencing our society. It’s not for the happy few or a couple, it’s for everyone.

Kroes remarks how impressive the roster of Salesforce board members is – including General Colin Powell and CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki – although despite all the company’s strenuous and welcome diversity efforts, we have to point out there are still only two women on the board. This of course is about twice as many as most organisations, but it just highlights the continuing uphill struggle businesses face when it comes to achieving a truly diverse workforce.

Diversity quotas

In light of the imbalance, Kroes reveals she’s in favour of diversity quotas, after making a calculation of how long it would take otherwise to achieve a truly diverse workforce. (You can read more on Kroes’ views on the topic of affirmative action in our report next week on the diversity panel at yesterday’s event).

There are boards where it’s working, but in general terms you need to be very careful that you show youngsters it’s a company worth working for. I was impressed by some very young females [attending Salesforce World Tour] who are in interesting positions. If that’s the case, it’s easier for management to have people to promote.

Indeed, it was because of a quota system requiring a certain number of women in the European Commission that Kroes found her way in.

I’d have never been Commissioner for Competition if I wasn’t female. The term for me was an ‘excuse girl’. I couldn’t care less, because as soon as I was appointed, I had to prove I was capable. I didn’t mind being the person to fill in just because I was female – I still had to be competent and prove myself.

Kroes was involved in some extremely high-profile investigations during her tenure as Competition Commissioner, none more so than the Microsoft monopoly case, but it was the chance to use the role as a stepping stone into the world of technology as head of the EU Digital Agenda that she’s really grateful.

I’d already had discussions through my Competition experience with a couple of the companies involved in digital, so I knew a bit about it. Competition policy was very important, but the Digital Agenda was fascinating because back in 2010, nothing was aligned across Europe.

If you’re united and not ring-fencing all those member states, you have all these opportunities for the digital single market. Sometimes I did have the feeling I was trying to move a dead horse.

No digital virgins

But despite deceased equine obstacles, Kroes persevered with her efforts to increase digital unity, notably in the broadband coverage arena.

It’s extremely important for every citizen to have access, whether you’re living on an island or in a rural area. We don’t want to have digital virgins.

It’s a risk if you’re not covering the rural areas as well as the densely populated areas, that you have the haves and have-nots for areas like e-health. You can’t expect to have the same broadband speed on an island as in London, but one way or another there should be opportunities.

For the UK specifically, Kroes feels the digital outlook is bright, especially on the education and startups scene. She cites some “extremely good universities” – Cambridge, Oxford, London School of Economics and Bath – and excellent research institutes.

You also have corporates involved, with Tech City, and around the Cambridge and Oxford ecosystem you’re pushing students with their startups.

You need a government that’s interested in the startup scene. Your prime minister [David Cameron] once said to me, if he has a bad day, he goes back home to discuss it with his wife, and then he goes to Tech City, as that gives him more confidence – he has a link with startups. If the prime minister has an interest and a link, and it’s not just a minister like Ed Vaizey, you’ve got integrated development across all the portfolios.

A current goal of Kroes is to increase venture capital (VC) funding in her home country of the Netherlands. She highlights the range of VC funding available in London already for small firms and startups, which is more than on the continent.

We’re trying to fill that gap in the Netherlands, especially for second-round funding, so firms aren’t forced to go to the States as they can’t find the money locally.

But for now, she’ll be awaiting the result of the 23 June referendum and hoping for the status quo to prevail.

[In the original version of this story, we incorrectly stated that Salesforce had not yet made clear its position on the EU referendum. The opening paragraphs have been amended to correct this and include its official statement.]

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