Craig Cuffie of Salesforce: This Moment Can Be a Movement If We’re Bold Enough to Be Uncomfortable

craig cuffie salesforce interview

Shortly after the social protests broke out in response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, I had a the opportunity to do a LinkedIn Live conversation with Dr Kamau Bobb – Google’s Global Lead for Diversity Strategy & Research, and Senior Director of Georgia Tech’s Constellations Center for Equity in Computing – on if this moment in time has the opportunity to lead to structural change and more opportunities for blacks to participate in executive positions in tech companies, given they only fill 2.7% of those positions currently according to a recent post from The Information.

The conversation with Dr. Bobb was as real and honest a discussion I’ve had recently, and left me wanting to get some additional perspective from Craig Cuffie, Salesforce’s Chief Procurement Officer and one of those 2.7% of black tech executives.  Salesforce has been a corporate leader in the areas of inclusion and diversity over the last several years, and Craig’s 30+ years working at the highest levels of a number of Fortune 500 companies provided me with unique insights that puts the current moment in perspective.

Interview with Craig Cuffie of Salesforce

Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation.  Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the full interview.

Small Business Trends: The protests and social unrest triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25th show no signs of slowing up.  We’ve seen some signs of change in response.  But do you think this moment has the possibility becoming a real movement that not can change the justice system, but can also lead to changes in the tech industry that will significantly increase black participation in executive positions well beyond the 2.7% rate recently cited by The Information?

Craig Cuffie: I do. I do. And I sent a text shortly after the killing of Mr. Floyd to our COO. And I said, “I have never known tougher times.” I mean, and no matter where you’re from, if you watched the news, listened to the news, thought about what was going on, you have to take pause and go, “What is happening? What just happened? What did we witness?” And that single incident, video for eight minutes and 46 seconds, and then broadcast on the news globally, crystallized the movement. Not the moment, but the movement. And it was hard. I mean, I have been on the phone nonstop. I mean, I got a crazy big job anyway. So I’m on the phone nonstop and you throw all this on top of that, and then a bunch of other things we’re doing in the company to address it and really show up and do our part and make change. Everyone is demanding change.

So I said to my team, and it took a while to process this, to process the words. You know when something really bad happens, you have to put a schema in your head to think about it, because there are places, I think for its own self-preservation, the mind will not let you go. It just won’t let you go there. So it takes time for you to figure out what just occurred. And I said to my team when I was finally able to address them, I said, “Look, here’s what I believe, the way I can describe this. This country has an inch and a half of gasoline poured all over it, and the killing of George Floyd was a match. Will we let the country burn? Or will we save ourselves? Will we save ourselves?”

And so it’s not just tech. It’s housing. It’s voting rights. It’s all of those things. The systemic racism in all of its manifestations have changed. Tech, as an exemplar, we know what the answer is. We know the question because we ask that every day, and you’ll get 2.7% of executives from the VP level up to CEO are Black against a population in the country of 13%. 13% against your 330 million people, roughly about 30 million people give or take, and that has been the number that has been around since I was a kid. Sticks in my head. It hasn’t changed. Population has grown. Population has decreased. But when you think about an opportunity and throw this against one in three Black men between the ages of 18 and 50 are incarcerated. So you’re automatically taking people out of the slipstream that could become CEOs.

I had a profound conversation with a young man doing a startup. Grew up in Florida, awful circumstances. And he was moved to a charter school and he was saved by a math teacher that moved him to the charter school. He said, “You are gifted in math. I will talk to your mom. We will get you into this charter school.” And had that not happened, he goes, “Craig, I would have been selling drugs on the street.” His vision of success was to get a nice car, and a gun, and sell drugs on the street. So how many more of those and successful entrepreneur plugged into the VC community here in the Valley? I mean, that story is just amazing.

So if we don’t look at it, if we don’t think about it, if we don’t create the opportunity… No one’s asking for a handout, we’re just asking for an at bat. I just want to be able to swing, and people just want to be able to swing. And sometimes I hit the ball, and sometimes I miss the ball, but at least I got the opportunity to swing and that’s what people are asking for, not preferential treatment, just the same opportunity. And I think if we can create that same opportunity and the big tech companies have come out with statements, they’ve put money behind it.

We need to put points on the board because we know there are capable African American individuals at every level available to move in slots into corporate. Let’s be clear, this is a behavioral issue at its core. And it starts with behavioral changes in organizations that say, “I’m going to go against my nature.” So what normally happens and what I’ve seen in my 38 years in corporate is when you have a recruiting team and the schools that they tend to go to is probably where the chairman of the board went, the CEO went there, and you kind of go, “How many Black people are you going to find in some small university in the Midwest?” It’s just not going to happen.

So you have to force yourself, against your better nature, it doesn’t mean your nature’s wrong. We are all comfortable with what we like to do. It doesn’t matter what it is. I work for a guy who’s hilarious. He said, “Everybody says they love change. So go in your kitchen and move their silverware to a different drawer. They will lose their stuff.” Right? Think of that. Right? How many times do you walk in the door and someone has moved your stuff? So you have to get people to go, “You know what? How do you get comfortable with being uncomfortable?” I submit that being a Black executive in any company, you’re kind of uncomfortable all the time. And you will always recognize it. It doesn’t always manifest itself in a set of actions, but you find yourself with some level of discomfort because you know that you are the only, and you don’t want to be the only. We absolutely don’t want to be the only.

So it is literally doing moves like we did at Salesforce where we took recruiting, and recruiting now reports into our chief diversity officer, our office of equality, Tony Prophet. That’s a bold move, to make sure that we have programs and policies in place, and training in place to get away from that bias, that unconscious bias that we have as one thing, to make sure that we have a slate of diverse candidacy is another thing. And then three, make sure that we’re hiring them. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to get a home run every time we put a diverse candidate into a pool of candidates, but it means at least they got a look. And that’s all we’re asking when it comes to adding Blacks in tech.

Small Business Trends: I think a lot of the beginnings of tech companies, particularly at the startup and then they grow into something big. When you’re a founder of a tech company, you depend on the people you know best. I mean, you depend on your classmates, you depend on your family, you depend on your friends, and they become your core. And maybe the business starts really growing, and it grows exceedingly fast and you have to bring on people. And once again, you depend on your social circle.

And so if you’re lucky enough, your tech company grows to the point where you have to start hiring people that’s not in your circle. Maybe it gets to the point where you’re public, but the core and the foundation is built and it’s built on your social net, social circle. So when it comes time to extend it, that’s when they start having to purposefully try to do things. Before, it was natural. Before, it grew organically. And I think that’s a challenge for a lot of these tech companies who they start out with their friends, and family, and social networks, and the foundation of the business is set before anybody else is kind of involved. How do we infiltrate that? Because I think that may be one of the answers. How do we get them to expand their network at the time where we can have diverse voices be a part of that growing and building the business part?

Craig Cuffie: I think there’s a couple of things that hit me immediately Brent. One is, to me it’s less about infiltrating that. And as we know, the growing cadre of Black entrepreneurs is not duplicating that. One of my mentors and dear friends said to me years ago, it’s not earth shattering but it’s absolutely true, “A social system will create itself in its own image unless it’s checked.” It absolutely will do that, and that’s just natural for us to do. So I can’t fault the founder for doing what any founder would do with the opportunity in front of him or her, which is, “Who can I trust to go on this journey with me?”

I mean, that’s the fundamental question I believe that the founder starts with. “Who can I trust and go on this journey with me? Who knows me? Is it my family, or my friends, or my folks I’ve worked with who know me well, and I know I can trust them?”

I have a dear friend who recently retired, and she would say the mark of trust or her is, “I’ll let you babysit my kids.” Because that’s what you think about, that obvious level of trust. “I’m going to let him come in my home and watch my kids, not as a throw off. It’s because I trust you.” And so how do we become as a community inside that trust zone? And some of that is the opportunities that happen there. So again, the fear for me is that we do the same thing and forget the fact that a diverse team will always produce better outcomes than a non-diverse team, be that team be all White, or all White men, or all White women, or all Black men, and all Black women. Because we’re just not seen.

We perceive the world and translate the world in our heads very differently. You and I will probably have shared experiences, lots of them, but how we view that world based on our experience set will drive us to different outcomes given the same opportunity. So that’s the thing for me. We can’t say we want it and then not do it.

Small Business Trends: Salesforce has done the best job of any tech companies I know recently of being inclusive and being diverse. You mentioned Tony Prophet. He’s just one of a number of folks that I’ve met that I’ve been so incredibly impressed with that are at Salesforce and are in strategic positions, but are also very much about what we’ve just been talking about here, opening up opportunities for others.

But it starts with Marc Benioff. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what Marc has meant to this, and how he has set the stage for Salesforce to be what I consider to be a leader, at least particularly in the tech field, when it comes to inclusiveness and diversity and trying to set a path for increasing opportunities for Blacks in particular when it comes to executive leadership at tech companies.

Craig Cuffie: I’ve been with the company about three years. I’m going to give you my impressions of Marc when it comes to diversity, and inclusion, and equity, and fairness. There are scant few CEOs that I’ve met, and I’ve met many and worked for a handful of them, that are as forward looking and thinking around this issue as he is. One of the unique things about Salesforce is its culture, and it has codified that culture over the last 20 or so years, and this is dead smack in the middle of it. There are questions, and I’ve been around in the workforce for a long time. And there’s a, I don’t know what magazine or what school put it out, but the fundamental question, “Does a company have a soul?”

This company has a soul, and it’s embedded in, or is its culture. And then you have a CEO that lives it and the leadership team lives it, and it flows down and we all live it. And that’s really important. And he has been deeply involved with this issue long before it was an issue relative to diversity and inclusion and in indexing on the things that are right, and fair, and just. So this is a natural extension of what he does, what the company does anyway.

We started a task force, a racial equality and justice task force, and it’s modeled on a conversation we had with Melody Hobson. And so we said, “Melody, how do you think about this?” And Marc was doing the interview. Melody said, “I think about the three Ps. I think about people, purchasing power, and philanthropy.”

What are you doing with the people? Are we indexing in the right way? Or are we not indexing in the right way? And if not, why not? Let’s understand that. Oh, by the way, they’re just numbers, and don’t be afraid of them. If you go through all this and you say you got 2.7% of a population is all you have and against a population of 13.4%, I think is the number, you go, “That shouldn’t be such a big lift, knowing that they’re out there.” Purchasing power, where are we spending our money? I happen to be the chief recruitment officer. So that’s why I am on this task force. Where are we spending our money? Where are we investing our money?

So I partner with the ventures team. There’s the money that I manage for the company to procure goods and services, but then there’s the ventures team that have committed to spending a hundred million dollars over the next three years in a dedicated fund to find and fund Black entrepreneurs. And I’m going to spend a hundred million dollars, going to spend more than that over the next three years, as well as grow our diverse supplier numbers 25% year on year. Well by the way, that’s ensuring there’s a slate and making different choices at selection. Assuming all things are equal, why not?

Philanthropy. What are we doing? What are we supporting? Are we enabling? And then the last piece which we added, we added another P. So there are four Ps instead of the three. Policy. We stand up and we have stood up many times around policies. When you think about what we did in Indiana, and we said, “We’re not going to work there. We’re not going to go keep an office there if this is the law of the land that’s coming down. It’s completely counter to how we think about people, and culture, and our values.” So we’ve done that before.

So those are the things that, brain child of the CEO, unbelievably supportive. I’ve been doing this for the last five or six weeks with the leaders in each of those pillars. Tony Prophet has got the people pillar, Eric Loeb is the policy pillar, Ebony Beckwith has the philanthropy pillar and she runs our dot org and our foundation, direct report to Marc. So you’ve got the top African-Americans in the company on this task force with a subcommittee of people that are subject matter experts, and then about 50 folks at large driving this task force. Oh, by the way, coming out and putting points in the board and measuring yourself directly accountable to the CEO. So that’s what Salesforce is doing. That’s what Marc has, I can say, has been instrumental in creating, and he has been evangelizing this in every public forum that I’ve seen him in over the last five or six weeks.

Small Business Trends: In your capacity as the chief procurement officer, you are setting aside a certain amount of money to do business with Black or diverse organizations, you’re investing in diverse organizations. I mean you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars. So A, this does not sound like a charity move here. You don’t do hundreds of millions of dollars for charity. You maybe do maybe a couple million, but you don’t do hundreds of million strictly for charity. This is for business.

Craig Cuffie: No, it’s not a charity move. We have a charitable arm of the company, and they don’t give out little millions of dollars. They give out tens of millions of dollars for various things. And Ebony Beckwith, my dear friend, leads that. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars over time. If you think about a group called the Billion Dollar Roundtable. The Billion Dollar Roundtable has been around, started by Bernard Tyson, God bless him, is no longer with us. But it’s companies that spend a billion dollars plus a year on diverse suppliers. So it would be very cool to be a member of that. And I’ve got them working in my team to figure out how we get there before I declare that. But it’s real. It’s a real commitment.

So I go back to Bernard Tyson. One of the things that he had started and is now almost near completion before he passed, was a new hospital down in LA in a pretty rough neighborhood. And he mandated that 20% of the employees will verifiably live within two miles of that hospital. And keep in mind, Kaiser Permanente, big long-term partner with Salesforce, Bernard was on our board of directors. When you think about health outcomes, which he was maniacally focused on, he knew that wealthy communities have better health outcomes. And so if you raised the standard of living in any community, the health outcomes will occur. And the phrase that was used for another task force, and a bunch of them, there’s other taskforces around this topic, was, “From counting spend to counting impact.” From counting spend to counting impact.

Why is that important? Chief procurement officers like me talk about how much spend that we have on our management. “Well, we’ve got this billion and that billion.” You know people like me. That’s what they talk about. Go through the bragging rights. How much spend do you have under management? And so when you think about counting impact, it creates a different dynamic around where those dollars go and the impact that those dollars have in the community. So I’ve been saying, and I’m pushing my team is to move away from counting spend to counting impact.

Small Business Trends: I love that because if it’s not having an impact, what’s the point? What are we doing?

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.