Friday 28 October 2016

"Technology has always seen as a boys' club - we're trying to change that"

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

Suzanne DiBianca is on a mission for good
Suzanne DiBianca is on a mission for good

Suzanne DiBianca is at the pointy end of making companies less evil. There's a real push - particularly in the technology sector - to use the wealth created by companies for something better than just buying Ferraris.

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She heads up the Salesforce Foundation and was one of the first employees at Marc Benioff's massive software and cloud services company.

"We use the 1-1-1 model," she tells me. This means that 1pc of the company's people/time-equity-product are devoted to philanthropy and doing good. It's also on a major drive to encourage young girls to view technology as a potential career.

The Salesforce Foundation gave away $20m in grants last year with another $30m coming this year. About 50pc goes to its staff to fund their own volunteering and schemes to help people, with the remainder split between education programmes and direct grants to groups such as Mary Moloney's Coderdojo in Ireland which got $200,000 to promote technology to kids. Citywise is another Irish beneficiary. "We're trying to create a revolution by democratising philanthropy," New Jersey born DiBianca tells me.

One of the key thrusts and one of the dominant themes of the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco last week is about encouraging women in technology. "We're focused on encouraging girls," she says. "We have 50pc girls in all our projects. It's not that we don't love boys, it's just that were trying to catch girls before they fall off.

"Preteen girls who don't have exposure to tech, engineering or science tend to avoid those sectors as careers later in life. It's a struggle to attract them. We're trying to capture them. Minecraft has been great. I showed my daughter how it was built and she thought it was cool. Historically technology has been a boys club and we're trying to change that. We're building a pipeline," she suggests.

The Salesforce foundation has 26,000 "customers" around the world with the majority of them - about 80pc - having budgets of under $1m. DiBianca says that it doesn't just hand over money to these organisations. "We kind of wrap ourselves around them," she suggests. This means that the skills and resources of a big company like Salesforce can be used to help.

Corporate philanthropy and the whole corporate and social responsibility seems to make sense for companies. "We call it a secondary or tertiary value. First and foremost it's about talent. We get more rounded people because of this," she tells me. One of the top sales guys in the company went off to build a school in Africa on his time off. "He could have just bought a Lamborghini," she says. "We attract high performance people who want to make a difference."

This is particularly noticeable in the executive and developer ranks of the company. Attracting high end talent is one of the key challenges in Silicon Valley and in the major tech centres of the world. Any company can pay buckets of money and shovel out stock options but increasingly people are looking for something with a little more soul. They want to give something back.

"In the Great Places to Work survey, we came third in the UK. One of the key things attracting people was the foundation and the ability to volunteer. We're finding the same thing in Ireland," she says.

Volunteering is a major thing for Salesforce staff. Last year the Irish Foundation alone chipped in 13,000 hours of employee time to help good causes. Last June they donated 1,500 hours over just one week, as part of their 15th birthday celebrations. Globally, Salesforce staff have given one million hours.

DiBianca is also arm twisting other big global firms to agree to give away 1pc of their equity to philanthropy. This has the potential to completely transform the giving and philanthropic sector and reduces the need for state intervention. There isn't much of that in the US anyway, which is one reason why the foundation has just divvied up $14m to local Californian schools. "I'm also focussed on it from the equity side. I'm involved in a thing called Pledge 1pc. This year we're trying to get 500 companies around the world. It's not just a Salesforce thing."

Ebay initially rolled out a scheme and DiBianca is trying to improve on the programme. "It's much harder with late stage companies. You have to be creative. The late stage privates are hard because the equity pie is already carved out, so you have to be creative in how you do it. I think it'll be a 10 year game," she says. Companies like Google are committed with new additions coming through all the time such as Twilio and Docusign last week. There are now 400 big companies around the world who are committed to the scheme. "Workday, the cloud based HR company and Yelp, they did the equity set-aside before their IPOs and now they have $120m in their foundations. That's pretty cool," she says.

The first conversation with an Irish company about giving over 1pc has also just taken place. It's unnamed. I mention Stripe and the Collison brothers. "Stripe. Yes, Stripe," she says. "We'll have to get them to do something."

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