By Ben Payntor. Originally published on Fast Company.
Over the last decade and a half, the cloud computing giant Salesforce has rewritten the rulebook for how corporate philanthropy is supposed to work. That includes formalizing a commitment to give at least 1% of its time, product, and equity to charity no matter how well the company may be doing. Then it formalized a process for others to follow suit in replicating that commitment: The company’s early effort became the basis for Pledge 1%, an advisory program that launched two years ago, which helps others do the same in at least one of those three areas. Pledge 1% has been adopted by well over a thousand companies, including unicorns like Atlassian, Box, Pure Storage, and Twilio.
In August 2016, the company went a step further, appointing Suzanne DiBianca, the former cofounder and president of its philanthropic arm, the Salesforce Foundation, as its first Chief Philanthropy Officer in charge of finding more commercial ways to make the act of doing good just plain good for business. A few months later, Salesforce met a promise it once made to go carbon neutral–33 years ahead of schedule.
“We came out of the gate really strong on philanthropy,” DiBianca says. In her new role, however, she realized that she could coordinate with Salesforce Ventures, the third biggest corporate venture fund behind Intel and Google. Salesforce won’t share its exact total investment, but Salesforce Ventures has backed more than 250 cloud-floated enterprise companies since 2009, including Dropbox and Twilio. That posed a new kind of question and opportunity. As DiBianca puts it: “Can we take our corporate capital and drive social change?”To find out, Salesforce Ventures has launched a $50 million impact investment fund to invest in social enterprises that are using its cloud-based customer relationship management platform in new ways to change the world. The group has already committed to at least four companies, each representing an area where they plan to be active: workplace development, equality, sustainability, and the social sector.
Future workplace development investments will target companies or entrepreneurs enabling equal access to education and preparing both traditional and non-traditional students for the jobs of the future, DiBianca says. When it comes to equality, the goal is to find companies that are “developing tools to promote equal opportunity and economic empowerment across the company and really around the world.”
For sustainability, Salesforce is seeking to back concepts that create better access to clean energy for all, while those companies are improving their own resource efficiency and supply chain performance. And within the social sector, the idea is to target promising businesses that are building different tech and tools that can help traditional aid groups up their impact by operating more efficiently and transparently.The true benefit is that as each company succeeds, it will improve Salesforce as well. All of these are strategic investments, notes John Somorjai, the executive vice president of Corporate Development and Salesforce Ventures, which means they will either help grow the company grow its footprint in new markets and potentially develop advancements that other partners can harness down the line. “The companies that we’re investing in are integrated with or built on the Salesforce platform,” he says. “So the fund, in that way, is going to be strategically aligned to our goals of building the world’s number one cloud ecosystem.”
The $50 million will be doled out to promising candidates within the next two years, While the company hasn’t released how many companies its plans to back, those that represent each category in its initial wave give some clues about what makes a promising target.
On the workplace development side, Viridis Learning, is a cloud-based job-matching platform that works with major educational institutions and employers to pair candidates with profiles that are based on automatically updating skill sets with potential jobs. To improve equality, the company has backed Ellevest, an investment platform aimed at women to close the gender-investment gap. According to Ellevest’s data, most women hold generally cash-based assets, which often isn’t multiplied in the ways it could be to grow their financial power.For sustainability, Salesforce invested in Angaza Design, a pay-as-you-go platform for renewable energy products like solar lanterns, which accepts mobile-based micro-payments from off-grid customers, who can buy light in pre-paid increments as they pay off the hardware supporting it. The group operates largely in Africa and South Asia. And for social sector improvement, there’s Hustle, a peer-to-peer text messaging service that allows nonprofits to organize grassroots support by sending large blasts to donors or activists, with individual replies managed in separate threads as they come in.
Much of this formalizes the work the group has been doing. For instance, a few years ago, it invested in Classy, a fundraising platform for social good organizations that would likely fit under the new social sector umbrella. To spot new opportunities and increase their return, the company may also co-invest alongside other proven operations in the impact investment space, like Omidyar Network and Kapor Capital. “What we found is that with all the rapid changes in technology that we’ve been experiencing particularly around social mobile and artificial intelligence, it’s presenting some incredible opportunities for businesses to create new solutions that have a positive impact on the world, and we want to fuel that,” says Somorjai.