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How Salesforce’s head of social impact thinks about her job — when the world needs it most

Suzanne DiBianca explains how the company is helping get kids back to school and government officials back to work while also trying to save the planet.

How Salesforce’s head of social impact thinks about her job — when the world needs it most

Suzanne DiBianca joined Salesforce 20 years go, when it had just 50 employees.

Photo: Courtesy of Salesforce

When Suzanne DiBianca joined Salesforce 20 years ago, the company had just 50 employees. As the head of the Salesforce Foundation, her job was to figure out what good the company could do in the world with what little it had.

Today, as Salesforce's chief impact officer, DiBianca's job is largely the same, except now she's got a lot more to work with — and a lot more work to do. For DiBianca, this unprecedentedly bleak point in history has called for a complete rethinking of Salesforce's potential for social impact, from the products it builds to the people it hires to how it spends its billions.

DiBianca spoke with Protocol about how she's thinking about what she called "a global health crisis, a pending economic crisis, a diversity and equality crisis, a leadership crisis, and a climate crisis" all rolled into one, and what Salesforce can do to help.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How has this period in history changed the work you do as chief impact officer of Salesforce?

We're a platform company. Our customers needed in the very early days to sort of manage what was happening, so we launched something called Salesforce Care, which is a suite of tools that enabled employers in the early days of the pandemic to gather feedback from their employees, figure out work styles, etc.

As we saw it all unfold and knew we were in it for the long haul, we set up a new set of tools called Work.com that enables companies to get back to work, whether they're in the office or not. A lot of it is real estate focused for our retail customers. [It handles] things like shift management and contact tracing, but we got a lot of pickup on that in the public sector. The government of Rhode Island is one we worked closely with on how you get public employees back to work.

We announced $20 million for the schools in Oakland and San Francisco. The kids who are in school in Oakland, 50% of them don't have internet access. We're now in over $100 million in [contributions to] Oakland, San Francisco, and we also work with school districts in Chicago, New York and Indianapolis.

Did you say 50%?

Fifty. Five zero. It's crazy. They don't have high-speed internet. Now that we know kids in the Bay Area aren't going back for probably a year, we're like, "How do we help the families that don't have enough equipment or don't have the bandwidth?" So that's a big part of what this last round of grants is going to: equipment and access.

Then we had this blow-up around inequality that's been simmering under the surface for a long time. With the death of George Floyd and a number of things that have happened the last couple months, we looked at our own company and said, "What can we do to respond to that crisis?" There's a global health crisis, a pending economic crisis, a diversity and equality crisis, a leadership crisis, and a climate crisis.

How do we address all of those things, and what can we do in a focused way? As it relates to diversity and equality, we made some pretty bold statements. We're going to increase our Black representation of employees by 50% by 2023. We're doubling the U.S. representation at the VP level and above. We made some really clear internal goals.

But what about our supply chain? In purchasing, we said we're going to spend $100 million on Black-owned businesses in the next three years. One of the things I run is an investment fund, and we looked at our venture portfolio and said we're going to increase our number of Black and underrepresented minorities by 3x by 2023.

How many of your portfolio companies include Black and underrepresented minorities now?

The Impact Investment Fund has actually been a really great pipeline for the ventures portfolio overall. Over 50% of the founders in the Impact Fund are Black or underrepresented minorities [Editor's note: This figure actually refers to female founders as well as founders who are Black and underrepresented minorities. Salesforce would not provide stats on racial diversity alone]. We tried to make some really big internal goals that were clear and measurable and had a short timeline to make change.

I know climate action is something you've been working on specifically and that Marc Benioff has been really involved in homelessness in San Francisco. How do you find all these competing crises are affecting your ability to act on those fronts?

For the first three months we kind of kept our mouths shut on climate. It's not that we weren't doing anything. We were quietly marching stuff in the background around the Trillion Tree effort [Editor's note: The Trillion Tree is a Benioff-backed campaign by the World Economic Forum to grow and conserve 1 trillion trees. Through it, Salesforce has committed to conserve and restore 100 million trees over the next decade]. And Sustainability Cloud, [an emissions reduction tool] is a product we launched a few months ago. But we left it in the background for a few months as people got their legs underneath them about how to cope with a global health crisis and an economic crisis.

But it's hard. We've got so many things going on, and yet we've got 10 years to get to a 1.5-degree world. I read recently we're trapped into a 4-degree world right now. We've got to raise our ambition. So what can we do now? We're going to launch a program called Net Zero at Home. It's what people can do as they're working at home to decrease their energy usage.

This is for the Salesforce platform?

First, it's for our employees, and then we'll roll it out. It's a playbook.

What social impact do you think that the shift to remote work is going to have?

We were very hub-based. Very San Francisco and New York. There's a lot of talent out there that doesn't live in those regions that would enable us to get to our diversity goals and inclusion goals. They don't have to be tethered to San Francisco and New York. I think there's a huge opportunity to build our workforce differently.

There's a lot of reskilling and retraining we can do. Trailhead is a learning platform we have which enables people to learn Salesforce skills. I work really deeply in the military community. The unemployment rate in the military community is staggering right now. We've been doubling down on training. These are portable jobs. You can work from anywhere to be a Salesforce administrator. And we just launched a program with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where they'll go through a certification process, and we'll have them work as an apprentice for three months and get that on-the- job experience.

What are the steps toward finding the diverse candidates you're going to hire?

I'll take the venture fund as one example. We've developed some new partnerships with Black VCs where we do really intentional sourcing of underrepresented minorities in a focused way. We hadn't really made it a core focus before. So new partnerships is one area.

Also, intentionality and broadening our aperture for the kind of companies we fund. They don't need to only be enterprise software. We can widen our aperture to great founders. We were like, "We're going to double down on climate and diversity. Who's in that space?" We found this incredible entrepreneur retrofitting public housing with clean energy. It's lifting up minority populations with jobs, and it's climate related.

How much say do you have in the company's contracts that people feel don't have a positive social impact, like Salesforce's immigration contracts? Are you part of that conversation?

I'm really not. That's really more run out of government relations and HR.

[Editor's note: At this point, a Salesforce public relations representative noted that the company hired its chief ethical use officer "to look at those specifically."]

Tech companies started putting out diversity reports in 2014. There's certainly been an understanding for a while that there's not enough diversity in tech. But this summer we've suddenly seen so many big commitments. Why do you think it took until now?

I don't know. I think there was a lot of experimentation since 2014 that people including us have been piloting. We're a software company. We love the beta. We want to see what works before we scale it. We needed time to learn which of these programs are moving the needle and which aren't. I think we now know what works. This example of doubling the VPs [of color]. We know that's going to work now. We've seen it work. We had a small pilot. We know they'll bring in other people who are diverse. You can turn an organization's diversity statistics faster when you go from a leadership level. We were testing ideas, and some were working and some weren't.

I can imagine someone saying you don't need a test to hire more white engineers. Why do we need to test this idea?

It wasn't testing the idea that we need more people of color. The hypothesis was where do we bring them into the organization to bring about change faster? Is it within a particular team? Is it at a certain level, like a leadership level? Is it more of a recruiting function? Those were the kinds of things we were testing. It was less: Do we need more women and people of color? Absolutely, and I've been working on that for a while.

How do you think Salesforce's view on its responsibility to social impact has changed since you got there?

When we started, we believed this was an important part of our founding principles as a company. When I started, the company was 50 people. Very few 50-person companies even today have someone working on social impact that early.

What's changed looking back is it's really a function of all parts of the company now. The people who really own and drive a lot of the sustainability work don't work on the sustainability team. They work on finance or investor relations or data-center optimization. That's why I was like, "I want my team to be really small." We need to get work done through others.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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