Dreamforce Model

What can I learn by attending a technology conference?

I realize describing Salesforce.com‘s Dreamforce as a technology conference is way too narrow.

This year’s four-day long event had 135,000 attendees, 1400 expert-led sessions, and diversions ranging from live bands like the Beach Boys to outdoor ping pong tables. The sensory overload spanned every inch of downtown San Francisco’s Moscone Center, several hotels, and even a closed city street.

It’s not a conference, it’s an extravaganza.

I also quickly stopped describing it as a technology show. Sure, the conference kicked off with a $1 million dollar prize Hackathon, and there would be exciting new cloud software product announcements. But the themes were really fashion, community, media, music, and philanthropy.

Yes, philanthropy. In fact, there was an overwhelming focus on philanthropy.

“There are three focuses for Dreamforce— innovation, fun, and giving back.”

With my head buried in financial services for so many years, this was my first time hearing Salesforce.com founder and CEO Marc Benioff speak. His statement stopped me in my tracks. I loved it, and I wrote it down. But I didn’t need to. It was visually evident and cited by other speakers throughout the two days I spent at Dreamforce.

Especially the idea of giving back.

I brought cans of soup to the conference on day one per the request that attendees bring canned foods to support the Dreamforce One Million Meals drive. While one million donated meals over four days seemed an ambitious goal, Marc and one of his mentors, the inspirational Tony Robbins with whom we all spent a magical three hours on Monday afternoon, each vowed to match one million meals if achieved. The final tally at the end of Dreamforce? Over three million meals donated.

Each day at Dreamforce had a different philanthropic focus–hunger, early childhood education, jobs for military veterans and helping non-profit organizations.

“Innovation, having fun, and giving back should be the core values for everyone.”

Appealing to the Salesforce.com CEO who invited and introduced her, Hillary Clinton kicked off day two along with Klaus Schwab, founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Just as Marc pushed aside talk of technology product to focus on giving back, Hillary similarly put aside politics.

The camera panned to 100 local school children, lucky conference invitees and future beneficiaries of a just-announced $5 million grant by Salesforce.com to the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

How cool it must be for these kids to be rows away from the former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Secretary of State.

As early childhood education is also a focus for the Clinton Foundation, Hillary’s opening comments referenced the “Word Gap,” a recent study showing that by age four, children in high-income families have heard 30 million more words than children from lower-income families. Marc Benioff had cited the stat earlier that day. And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cited the 30 million word gap in a talk I attended last week.

So now I’ve now heard this staggering 30 million word stat three times in public forums. It’s been committed to memory. I don’t want to forget it.

And then it hit me how amazing and rare this moment was, sitting in the audience with Marc Benioff, Hillary Clinton and Klaus Schwab engaging on the same stage in what could be described as a Davos-Economic-Forum-meets-tech-talk format. These three leaders represented business, government, and a non-for-profit global public interest group, yet their personal histories, passions, and philosophies were all interconnected.

Marc spent much of the first 1.5 days of Dreamforce emphasizing the importance of “multi-stakeholder dialogue.” His commitment to building partnerships between business and society to improve the world was clearly formalized by his participation in the WEF’s Young Global Leaders program, where he met a major life influencer in Klaus Schwab.

Klaus emphasized the importance of face-to-face meetings, but also the need for sustained digital interactions to keep further understanding. On the other hand, Hillary shared examples of how technology puts a higher premium on face-to-face meetings. So you could say that Salesforce technologies contribute to both the problem and the solution.

While most are versed in the Clinton Foundation‘s dedication to global health, opportunities for women and girls, and the effects of climate change, it was Hillary who complimented Marc and Salesforce.com as a role model for “doing good, while doing well.”

I have to admit not knowing much about Salesforce’s corporate mission prior to this week. Hearing the name Salesforce, my mind would always revert back to 1999 when they were constantly advertising on local radio for salespeople (and I would think “who does that in San Francisco in the midst of a tech boom?”)

Marc Benioff, that’s who. Quite successfully. So much so that a year after founding, Marc established the Salesforce.com Foundation based on a simple idea—leverage 1% of the company’s product, equity and time to improve communities around the world.

After 14 years, they are proud to share their results: 23,000 higher education and non-profit customers, over $68 million in grants, and more than 680,000 volunteer hours from employees.

It’s so simple. It’s so inspiring. It’s an incredible example of integrated philanthropy that I hope other organizations large and small will follow.

So ironically, it was a technology conference that showed me what a true multi-stakeholder dialogue looks like.

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