What I Learned From Colin Powell

Many ways we come from totally different places. Colin Powell was born and raised in Harlem. As a young R.O.T.C., he also grew up in South Bronx. In the 1950s, he was a cadet and endured the inequalities of the South. I was born in San Francisco and grew up in the 1970s amid the summer of love, marches for women’s rights, and where neighbors proudly flew rainbow flags.

With a strong respect for tradition, hierarchy, and institutions, he rose up through the ranks in the military and Washington. My first accomplishment was to create adventure games on the Atari 800. Later, I started my own software business in an industry that values innovation and breaks old patterns with new technologies.
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Colin Powell changed my perspective on business and how companies are perceived in the global marketplace when we met unexpectedly in 1997.

I was in Philadelphia for the President’s Summit for America’s Future, chaired by Powell and his nonprofit, America’s Promise, dedicated to lifting up at-risk youth. At the summit, five of the most prominent CEOs from around the world and the top 100 living presidents were present. I was a thirty-two year-old Silicon Valley techie looking for inspiration, and I’ve never forgotten what the former general said when he took the stage:

“This is a time for each and every one of us to look into our own heart, to look into our own community, find someone who is in need, find someone who is wanting, find someone who is looking up to us, and for each and every one of us to reach down, to reach back, to reach across, to lift up a fellow American and put him on the road to success in this wonder country of ours.“

Colin Powell said that business can do much more than just make money. Our role was to become a catalyst for social change and a force for good. It was the best advice I’d ever heard, and in the years that followed, he became one of the most important mentors in my life.

Back at Oracle, which is growing fast, I was ready to transform the world. Inspired by General Powell’s words, I came up with the idea for Oracle’s Promise, which would provide computers to schools all over the world.

For our first project, we went into MacFarland Middle School in Washington D.C. — a school General Powell had adopted — to install computers.

It was 100 degrees outside, the busiest hour of the Oracle year. Unfortunately not enough people turned up to help. General Powell was informed by me. I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to get the computers in. We have it all there, ready to go.” He hung up the phone on me. I knew we’d let him down. A battalion made up of marines was soon there and the computers were installed. That day, he taught me not only what leadership and integrity meant—but also that it’s good to be a general.

Shortly after, I founded Salesforce in 1999—inspired by General Powell to include a new model of philanthropy as a fundamental part of our company—pledging one percent of our equity, product and time to our communities. General Powell was invited to our board in 2014. My goal was to bring his experience and wisdom into our business. I also wanted it to reflect the core values that he lived.

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David Hume Kennerly—Getty ImagesChairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell reads during April 1993’s trip to USS Wasp (off the coast of Somalia),

For seven years, he was a member of our board. He was a model of military discipline and never missed an appointment. I came to appreciate the qualities that presidents of both parties clearly valued in him—his integrity, his honesty, his pragmatism and his focus on problem-solving. He called me Marc, but I always called him “Sir.” When he offered his advice—whether on the importance of transparency or communicating clearly so people know where you stand—I realized that he was still mentoring me.

He often told me, “You recruit a soldier, but you retain a family.” I’ve tried to follow his example, building a culture that brings our families and communities along with us. General Powell had a passion for helping veterans and especially enlisted soldiers. He inspired Salesforce Military to be created, which is a career and job training program that serves service personnel, veterans and spouses. Through his vision, we’ve reached 40,000 veterans, placed 1,200 in jobs, and built a network of 500 employers that help support their career success. We became friends and he became a part of the Salesforce family.

Colin Powell understood that trust was a key value for leaders at this time in history, when so many people are distrusting institutions. He was the first to admit that he wasn’t perfect. He was open to admitting his mistakes and held himself responsible. He stood up for our ideals when our leaders or our nation fell short. He also let me know when I made mistakes.

Companies must be motivated by something more than profit to create trust. In one of his now-famous 13 leadership lessons, he explained that “great leaders inspire every follower at every level to internalize their purpose, and to understand that their purpose goes far beyond the mere details of their job.” Our world would be a more equal, just and sustainable place if more CEOs recognized that they have obligations not only to their shareholders, but to all their stakeholders, including employees, communities and the planet.

Colin Powell understood that the march for equality was not something business can ignore. Colin Powell was an active board member and he regularly joined the all-hands conference calls along with 75,000 of our employees. He recalled his youth as a soldier serving in Vietnam and Alma in Birmingham protecting their home from the racist mobs that led by Bull Connor. “We’ve come a long way,” he told us, “but we’ve got a very long, long way to go yet.”

Colin PowellPowell realized that education is one of best ways to combat inequality. He also believed that the business had a responsibility and obligation to assist. His meteoric rise was due to his immigrant parents. He spoke proudly about the City College of New York, where he was a graduate. Salesforce has granted public schools $120 million thanks to his philanthropy. We have “to do everything we can,” he told us, “to keep bringing these kids along.”

Many of the CEOs that I speak to today are struggling to see a greater purpose than just profit. Many Americans feel we’re hopelessly divided as a country. These are hard times. But I share Colin Powell’s perpetual optimism. Because if we need a lodestar for how to live and work and serve others, we could ask for no greater example than the trailblazer from the South Bronx who taught us to embrace our duty to each other—as neighbors, as Americans and as fellow human beings.

Marc Benioff co-owns TIME. He is also chairperson and CEO at Salesforce.


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