San Francisco tech titan takes strong stand for Prop C

The signs of economic success can be found in the construction cranes in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood.

They've come to symbolize a city that's rapidly transformed, but amid the prosperity that's changed the city skyline, a difficult and devastating problem surges on the streets below.

"You just have to walk a few blocks from here at Salesforce and you'll see that there are a lot of homeless people in our city and it's getting much, much worse," said Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

Our Heather Holmes recently sat down with Benioff to talk about his support of Proposition C.

The controversial ballot measure would impose a new tax on the city's wealthiest companies and put that money toward helping those living on the streets.

Benioff has long been committed to Bay Area causes, donating millions to hospitals, schools and organizations devoted to homelessness. 

"I've been in the shelters. I've seen the progress that can be made," Benioff said adding that "it requires funding and it requires focus."

Benioff says the homeless problem has outgrown philanthropy alone and that it's time for a tax requiring all rich companies to step and help deal with the crisis. 

He's contributed more than $5 million of his personal money and Salesforce funds to support Proposition C.

The homeless initiative would impose a new tax on companies in San Francisco with a total income of more than $50 million.

Analysts estimate the tax could generate $300 million a year and could cost Salesforce up to $10 million a year in additional taxes.

"It's not going to be just one company, or one individual, who's passionate about homelessness," Benioff said. "It's that everybody who participates in this incredible city that we're in, is going to have the ability to contribute to solving the homelessness problem."

But some high-profile tech executives are critical of the initiative, including Jack Dorsey who is the CEO of both Twitter and Square. 

He and Benioff had a public spat on Twitter over the tax proposal. 

Dorsey tweeted last Friday, the same day as our interview with Benioff, about the unfairness of Proposition C claiming that the tax could disproportionately harm Square. 

"We're happy to pay our taxes. We just want to be treated fairly with respect to our peer companies, many of whom are 2-10x larger than us," Dorsey tweeted referring to Square. "Otherwise we don't know how to practically grow in the city. That's heartbreaking for us as we love SF and want to continue to help build it."

"These are immaterial amounts. You know, $10 million or $20 million for a company like Salesforce or Square or Twitter doesn't mean anything to our financials, or to their market capitalization, or to Jack Dorsey's net worth," Benioff countered.  "But it does mean a lot to the homeless people who are in the city and who are suffering right now."

Benioff, who's been dubbed an "activist CEO", doesn't shy away from controversial issues and with an estimated 7,000 people living on the streets in San Francisco and one in 30 public school students homeless, Benioff believes it's a moral obligation to help.

"It really gets down to 2 things: You're either for the homeless or you're not. It becomes very binary," Benioff said.   “I see that over and over again as a philanthropist, people are either willing to give or they're not willing to give."

As head of San Francisco's largest private employer, Benioff is not only facing opposition from other companies, including Visa and Lyft, but also from City Hall. 

Mayor London Breed argues Proposition C lacks accountability. 

She says the city needs to audit the $300 million plus it's already spending on homelessness and she argues a new tax could drive businesses away.

"I just want to be clear, large businesses in San Francisco should and can pay more for the purposes of helping to address many of the challenges that exist in our city," Mayor Breed said. "But at the same time, unfortunately, I don't believe this is the right policy decision to do that."

Benioff responded to the mayor's concerns.

"She knows she needs more money. She just wants to wait until she's ready to completely receive it. Well, this is going to give her everything she wants," said Benioff.

When asked why the mayor is against Prop C, Benioff replied "I think it's mostly, it's politics."

Benioff says he's not motivated my politics, but by the despair he sees - the encampments that continue to pop up under bridges, on freeway medians and along busy sidewalks. 

“I'm a private businessman, entrepreneur, fourth-generation San Franciscan.  I have a deep love of San Francisco," Benioff said.  "All I care about is those homeless people and those families who are on San Francisco streets and how are we going to get them into homes and how are we going to get them fed and educated and back into society in a positive way.  That's my focus.  That's all I care about."