Dreamforce 2015: Salesforce.com co-founders want more women execs in tech

Admitting they waited too long to take a stand, Salesforce.com's co-founders explain how they want the CRM giant to stand as a role model in closing the gender gap in tech.

SAN FRANCISCO---Gender and ethnic diversity -- or lack thereof -- has become a boiler plate issue in the tech industry this year as many companies are starting to ramp up or even flaunt hiring goals to balance demographics in leadership and technical roles.

One strategy for achieving this balance is setting clear intentions and prioritizing them, according to Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff while speaking at the first Women's Leadership Summit, a one-day program on day three of the annual Dreamforce conference.

During a fireside chat with Re/code executive editor Kara Swisher, Benioff asserted Salesforce has made progress in hiring women and promoting equal pay, but he admitted that the tech giant waited too long.

"I wish we could rewind history to 16 and a half years ago," Benioff lamented. "When we set out our corporate principals, one of the mistakes we made was not taking any goals or initiatives around this. That was a huge mistake."

Salesforce.com co-founder Parker Harris concurred, stating frankly, "We need more women executives at Salesforce."

Benioff described his mindset when leaving Oracle after more than a decade to launch Salesforce, remarking, "I was coming out of a company where this was not an issue -- or not discussed."

"This was not part of the narrative," Benioff continued. "There was no discussion around women's issues, diversity issues, women in leadership."

When you have a big company, whether it be Salesforce, Apple or Microsoft, they must set examples to achieve progress, Benioff insisted, drawing comparisons between both Salesforce's ongoing philanthropic ethos and its newer agenda for women's leadership.

"We are mindful ahead of time when we are architecting our keynote up front," Benioff asserted, calling out the lack of women on stage at the most recent Apple event last week for the iPhone 6s and iPad Pro debuts.

Aside from the Women's Leadership Summit, spearheaded by Desk.com general manager Leyla Seka, Harris outlined some of the initiatives Salesforce is undertaking within the company to encourage gender diversity from the inside out, including a mentorship program partnering veterans with up-and-coming leaders.

"We need to do more," Harris said. "We can't solve all of Silicon Valley. We can only do something at Salesforce and then influence from there. That's a longer-term, macro problem we're trying to invest in."

Benioff stipulated that this is not just an "HR issue" but the responsibility of the CEO, explaining that just like product or business model objectives, diversity in hiring requires transformation and leaders who set values.

"That's the burden of leadership. What you prioritize is what you create," Benioff argued. Characterizing the tech industry as a relatively nascent one "started by men," Benioff noted industry haven't made the shift as aggressively as possible.

"As we've gotten more educated on this issue, it's clear as day," Benioff posited, reiterating workforce diversity can't be reduced to an issue discussed in HR or by journalists. Harris reflected he wished he had done this leadership program years ago but is optimistic to see it flourish throughout the company.

Although the hiring of minorities was not discussed as nearly in detail, Benioff stressed overall diversity is extremely important, but he highlighted gender diversity as a major focus where the company is making the most progress thus far.

"We're going to try to be the change we are seeking," Benioff promised. "We're going to be an example of great women's leadership in our industry."