Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff took the stage at his company’s Dreamforce 2016 conference in San Francisco in the wake of hip hop artist Will.i.am’s declaration that “geekdom can change the inner city forever”.
The former Black Eyed Peas performer (pictured above) told the conference about the education programme he funds whose goal is to direct black youth away from gang culture and towards education in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. “We don’t want double Ds, in the sense of diplomas plus debt, but diplomas in subjects like robotics,” said Will.i.am.
The original cohort of 65 students from the musician’s home neighbourhood who have graduated with his support in computer science and robotics, have now been joined by 400 other students, he said.
Looking out over a sea of mostly white faces – as is the norm at IT conferences – Will.i.am said: “Why does it have to look like this in the room? There is so much talent in the ’hood. If was 1960, it would look like this.
“I’m sitting here in this room with amazing developers and companies because I was given an awesome education. I got bussed out from the ghetto to a great school from the age of seven.”
Will.i.am recalled how the Black Eyed Peas were asked to play for tsunami relief: “But I realised there is a tsunami in every ’hood every day. There is a tsunami of lack of opportunity and no investment in education. A tsunami of crime, of drugs. There is nothing to do in the ghetto, except join the family of the gang and sell a product, which happens to be illegal.
“So there is a kid right now serving a five- to 20-year sentence for marijuana. If only they were given an education, they would be the entrepreneurs that are we are celebrating here now.”
Benioff promised Will.i.am that Salesforce would further its involvement in public education, making sure there were computer science and robotics lessons available. “There are people in this room and watching online who will double down in an investment in public education and follow your lead,” he said.
Benioff and fellow Salesforce co-founder Parker Harris spent much of the keynote expanding on the artificial intelligence algorithms, dubbed Einstein, that the supplier is embedding into recent and developing versions of its customer relationship management (CRM) applications.
By virtue of Einstein, said Benioff, “everybody’s a data scientist – I know this sounds like magic, but so did the cloud to everyone and mobile to everyone”.
For his part, Harris – who was not, unlike previous years, in costume as he and Benioff talked with an animated Einstein superimposed between them on-screen – stressed the notion of “creating simplicity from complexity”, exemplified in the formula E=MC2.
However, the German-Jewish physicist who revolutionised his field in the 20th century was as much invoked by Benioff for his philosophy, captured in the phrase “only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile”, as for his theoretical physics.
Benioff led his oration by welcoming attendees to the “Ohana” of Dreamforce – a Hawaiian word meaning “extended family” – and confirmed how he had road-tested the concept on a pre-Dreamforce extended tour. He stressed the continued application of the company’s “1-1-1 model”, whereby it contributed 1% of product, 1% of equity and 1% of employee hours into the wider community.
(Red), the anti-HIV and Aids charity focused on Africa whose animating spirit is Bono from Dublin band U2, was the major charitable beneficiary at this year’s Dreamforce.
Ebony Freelix, the supplier’s vice-president for philanthropy and engagement, spoke on stage about the charity’s goal for an Aids-free generation in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020, and how Salesforce had donated pro-bono volunteers from the company and its Wave Analytics software to help the charity.
“Dreamforce is more than a technology conference – it’s a family, and it’s a rock concert, and a place to give back,” she said.
Freelix declared the goal of raising $1m at Dreamforce and said that Bill and Melinda Gates would double-match the money raised by attendees, while Benioff and his wife Lynne had put in $1m. Melinda Gates also spoke at the event.
Deborah Dugan, CEO of (Red), joined her on stage and made mention of her “boss, Bono”, also a large presence at Dreamforce, in addition to Will.i.am.
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A few hours later, U2, on their 40th anniversary as a band, played at the event’s rock concert, Dreamfest. The Irish band’s set featured an impassioned tirade from Bono against Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump in the name of “all who believe in the idea of America, the Irish, for example. Or the French. Or the Brazilians”.
“The culture of this community is as much about giving away money as making it,” said Bono on stage. And he praised how the US and its gay community had “led the way” in the fight against Aids.
But despite its philanthropy, according to the Financial Times, Salesforce’s failed attempt to buy LinkedIn this year and its reported desire to buy Twitter is making the company’s investors uneasy.
Salesforce has made no fewer than 12 acquisitions since Dreamforce 2015: MinHash, SteelBrick, PredictionIO, MetaMind, Implisit, Demandware, Coolan, Quip, BeyondCore, Spree Commerce, HeyWire and Krux. This buying spree, and its significance, is discussed in a podcast from Computer Weekly’s sister website, SearchSalesforce.com.
Whatever the truth of the matter as regards investor anxiety, Dreamforce showed itself again this year to be a singular event in the IT industry calendar. To adopt some U2 phrasing: “This IT conference is not an IT conference, this conference is Dreamforce, Bloody Dreamforce.”