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2014 Commencement Address

USC Commencement Address
Delivered by Marc Benioff

Friday, May 16, 2014


Good morning, Trojans!

Well, thank you, Max, for having me here. It is so great to be with you today. What a gorgeous day this is. And thank you, Max, for dressing me as the world’s largest commencement penguin. That’s also fantastic. And congratulations to this great class of 2014. Congratulations to all of you.

I really don’t remember my graduation. I kind of remember sitting out there, but it might have been a late night at The 9-0. Probably was. Might have been a late night at my fraternity house. It probably was. It might have been many things, but I really don’t remember my graduation.

People always ask me — I have this great opportunity to speak all over the world, I get to talk to folks, mostly about technology, technology audiences — and I’ll tell you what they do. They always ask me — because I always tell them I went to USC, of course — they go, “Well, how did you choose USC?” And I always tell them, “Well, it was very simple. My mom went here. My mom went to USC.” She started here in 1957, class of 1961. Joelle Benioff, stand up right here. Mom knows best, Mom knows best.

Congratulations to all these parents of graduates of the class of 2014. Congratulations to all these great parents. Congratulations to my mother.

You know, I really loved it here at USC. I always loved being here on this beautiful campus. I always loved the incredible student body. I always loved going out to all the various athletic games. I loved being in the fraternity lifestyle. It’s fantastic. I loved my Marshall School of Business, my entrepreneur program. I loved all the great musical programs and dance programs and all the great things we have at USC that make us so special and unique.

And I’ll tell you, I loved the student body here. I loved the diversity of it. I loved the meritocracy of it. I loved the spirituality of it. I loved that at USC we have more Catholics than at Notre Dame, which I think is a college in the Midwest. Is that right, Max? We have more Jews here than Brandeis. We have more Hindus than any other university in this great country of ours. And there’s a lot of people like me who are just grateful to God for this glorious day.

And I’ll tell you, I was sitting out here not so long ago, but life does go fast. And I made an unusual decision. I was graduating on a Friday, just like you are here, and Monday I started work. I was ready to hit it. I was ready to get going, ready to make it happen, ready to get out there. I was motivated. I was excited. I was educated. I was inspired by my commencement speaker. And I was ready to go! Ready!

And Monday I started at this little software company called Oracle Corporation in San Francisco, this little software company. And I got up there and they were excited and they were inspired. And I’ll tell you what, I worked and I worked. And as you heard, I had some great success there. I was the youngest VP there and youngest SVP. And I went on and created some great products and did all these things. And about a decade went by after my graduation.

And I’ll tell you, life goes fast and 10 years went by and you know, it’s kind of funny. People are always overestimating what you can do in a year and underestimating what happens in a decade.

And a decade went by and all of a sudden, I kind of felt a little bit weird. I felt kind of unmotivated, unenergized, not very excited, not very inspired. I was kind of in a bad mood, kind of grumpy, a little bit pissed off. And I went in and I talked to my boss, Larry Ellison, who’s the CEO of Oracle, and I said, “I’m not feeling that great. I think I need to take some time off.” He said, “Go for it. Good idea.” Very supportive.

So, there I was, kind of a lost 30-something. And I did what all lost 30-somethings do. I went to India. And I went to India and I took with me one of my really good friends, Arjun Gupta. And we were touring India, and Arjun was born in New Delhi, but he had never been through India. And I wanted to go through India and I had all this time off and I was going to make good use of it and do something I couldn’t normally do.

And we hit all these great cities from the north to the south, from the east to the west. And then I’ll tell you something amazing happened. Something amazing happened. Arjun and I ended up in a little hut, a little hut in a little area of India in the south called Kerala in a little city called Trivandrum.

And Arjun and I were sitting in a little hut with a guru. A guru is an incredible female saint. All the saints in the south of India are female. And we were kind of confessing our lives and our worries and our concerns and our anxieties and our fears and talking about life and what we had accomplished and, you know, that we wanted to change and we were on our quest. And we’re sitting there in that hut, and it’s kind of fun and amazing at the same time, and incense was kind of wafting over us and candles were flickering, monks were chanting.

And Arjun was getting ready to start this new venture capital company and he decided to take out his business plan. And he took out his business plan and he started reading it to the saint. And for an hour he talked about the future of technology and it was going to the cloud and it was going mobile and it was going to have social networks and a trillion sensors and everything in the world was going to get connected together! And she sat there so patiently, for an hour. And it was great. It was amazing. I was inspired by him.

And then, at the very end, she turned to him. She turned to him after listening to his whole business plan and said this: “Arjun, while you are working so hard to change the world and create all this great technology, and I’m sure all of it will come to pass, don’t forget, don’t forget, to do something for others.” And Arjun was kind of taken back a little bit. And I felt like she was talking to me. And I kind of felt like I’d just found what I was looking for. She said don’t forget about other people while we’re doing all this hard work. While we’re changing the world, don’t forget about others who are a little less, a little less, well, a little less well taken care of than we are here, you know?

So we left. Actually, the next day was our time to go home. And that night we were kind of on a rice boat on the backwaters of the Arabian Sea and we were eating our kind of vegetarian meal and going down this incredible river and talking about that. On the one hand, we have this incredible business life and technology life and we have these amazing degrees and we’re putting it all into action. And on the other [hand], we kind of have this rebirth desire after this guru to do something for others. Do something for others.

And I said, “Arjun, I think that our challenge, and what she’s setting out here, the gambit, is: How are we going to put this together?” And honestly, we really had no idea. And we got on the airplane the next day and we went back to San Francisco. And I went back to my desk at Oracle and he went off to start his company.

And just as I arrived back at my office, I got a phone call. It was a fateful call, to attend something called The Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future. And it was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I went out there. It was incredible. I arrived in this huge conference room and it was being chaired by General Colin Powell, one of the great Americans, and the five living presidents of the United States. Nancy Reagan was representing Ronald Reagan.

And we’re sitting there in this room and the five living presidents were on stage. And the General came up, he came up on stage and stood at the podium. And everyone in the audience were kind of the CEOs and the leaders of these major corporations of the United States. And I looked around and I felt, “Wow, I’m really in some incredible company here.” I just recognized these faces from every page of Fortune or Forbes or Business Week or The Wall Street Journal.

And General Powell stood up and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve brought you here today to tell you something very important, that Milton Friedman was wrong, that the business of business is not business, that your companies, your organizations, are some of the richest, most powerful resources we have in our great country. And your leaders are some of the greatest leaders we have in our great country. And we need to put them to work to help everyone in this great country.”

And he went on, “What we need to do is tap into your employees and we need to tap into your products and we need to tap into your technology and we need to tap into your relationships and your resources, and everything that is going on in your organizations. And you need to get out there and help our Boys and Girls Clubs, and our YMCAs and build safe places for kids after school, and do mentoring and tutoring. And you can integrate your corporations with the communities that they exist in. And that you do not have to have walls around you that are separating you from those that you are living right next to.”

And it was a motivating speech. It was inspiring. And then he ended it and he said, “Just remember this. Get out there and do something for other people.”

And then I said, “Wow. I have a second guru. I just was in India hearing this from Ammaji and now I’m in Philadelphia hearing it from Colin Powell, the same message.” And I said to myself, “I think I’m getting it here. I think I’m understanding what is coming through me.”

And so, I’ll tell you what. I went back to Oracle and I talked to my boss, the CEO there, and I said, “You know, we’ve got to create a foundation. And we’ve got to do all these things that General Powell said.” And he said, “You’re right and we’re going to do it.”

And all of a sudden I found myself, in the day, morning time, putting computers in schools and wiring them and training teachers and working with kids, and in the afternoon, I was building products and building markets and building technology, and it was awesome. And I said, “I think this is what I want to do. I kind of have both things going on. This is exciting.”

And then I got a call from General Powell, and General Powell said, “Marc, I just adopted MacFarland Middle School in Washington, D.C. You need to go put those computers in there.” And I said, “Yes, sir, General! I’ll get it done!” And I took my three top engineers, led by Jim Cavalieri, and 100 computers and we sent them all out there, and they were ready, and it was a hot day out there in Washington, D.C. when they arrived. Hot like this, maybe hotter. I think they said it was about 110 degrees out. And they had to bring those computers up three flights of stairs and we had called our local office to make sure that our employees were there to help them. We have a big office in Bethesda, Maryland. And then I got a call from Jim, and Jim said, “Marc, I got a problem.” I said, “What is it, Jim?” He said, “We’ve got the computers. I’m here. The guys are here. The employees are not here. I don’t know how we’re going to get these computers up three flights of stairs and installed today.”

And I was worried. I was upset. I was somewhat dejected. And I said, “I better call General Powell and tell him this is not going to happen.” So I got on the phone and I called General Powell. And I said, “General, we got the computers there. We’ve got our engineers there, but it’s the last day of the quarter and our employees just could not get there today. We’re going to have to reschedule. I’m so sorry.” And I was really asking him for his forgiveness, and the phone hung up on me. And I said, “Hello, General? Hello, General?” No, he was not there. It was over.

And I felt so bad. I was really upset. General Powell, one of the great Americans! And I sat there at my desk and I was, like, “Maybe I got this all wrong, trying to do all this kind of altruism, technology and business and philanthropy and put it all together. And here I am and I just upset General Powell.”

And then the phone rang again, and I answered the phone, and it was Jim. And Jim said,
“Marc?” I said, “What’s going on, Jim?” He said, “A battalion of Marines just arrived here at MacFarland Middle School and the battalion of Marines is installing the computers and we are good to go!” And I said, “It is good to be a general!”

Well, I learned something that day. And what I learned is, if you are going to connect your business and your philanthropy, you better make sure that it’s integrated deep into your culture, that it’s not just something that you’re going to tack on, but that you’re going to build an integrated business. You’re going to build an integrated life. You’re going to get these things to work deeply together! And you can do it.

And when I started my company,, in 1999, I decided to do three things: one, a radically new technology model called cloud computing; two, a radically new business model, which was subscription services for software; and, three, a radically new philanthropy model. Where that day, we started the company we put 1 percent of our equity, 1 percent of our profit and 1 percent of all of our employees’ time into a 501(c)(3) public charity. It was very easy. We had no products. We had no equity. We had no people. It was an easy decision.

But today, is doing great. We have more than 13,000 employees. We’ll do more than $5 billion in revenue this year. We’re heading into the Fortune 500, the top 500 companies in the world. We are Fortune magazine’s “Most Admired Software Company” for 2014. We are Forbes’ “Most Innovative Company in the World”—for three years in a row—and we are Fortune magazine’s “Best Place to Work,” number seven this year, in the world. Thank you, and if you’re looking for a job, graduates, is my email address.

But I’ll tell you, we’ve built a great company, but the best thing of all is we put that 1-1-1 model in, so today I’m very proud to be able to tell you that we’ve also given away more than 600,000 hours of community service this year. We also have given away more than $50 million in grants and we run more than 20,000 nonprofits and NGOs for free on our service all over the world, and that was deep into our culture. Thank you.

And I can also tell you on the first day of employment, our new employees come in and we show them where their desk is and we show them where the kitchen is. And that afternoon they all go out and they do something for someone else. They go to our soup kitchens and they go to our homeless shelters and they go to our hospitals and they go out and learn that Salesforce is a company that is about building great technologies and being innovative and creating new markets, and also giving back and doing it simultaneously.

And I’ll tell you why that integrated business, that integrated life, is so important. Because the real joy in life comes from giving. It comes from service. It comes from doing things for other people. That is what is so powerful about this. Nothing will make you happier than giving.

Look around you today at this gorgeous campus. Look around, these beautiful buildings and landscaping and this beautiful university that we love, to be here now and you’ll love to come back many years from now as well. And always remember this great day and your great time here at USC, perhaps one of the very greatest of all the universities in the world and most beautiful universities in the world. And look around at all these beautiful faces, and all this incredible, incredible joy.

But I’ll tell you, one of the things that’s most beautiful about USC is its commitment to service, 300 service organizations who, just in the last year, delivered more than 765,000 hours of community service. That’s what makes this university so great.

Now, when we all drove in here today into this beauty, we drove through some high fences and high gates. And we all know why. We all know why we drove through those high fences and high gates, because only a few blocks from here are some of the most impoverished people in the world. And that’s why our commitment to others is so important and everlasting. Don’t let those walls be a metaphor for your own life. Get out there and do something for others — and Fight On, Trojans!