Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff gives spring 2015 commencement keynote address

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Update 5/17/2015: This story has been updated to reflect an interview with Shireen Ebrahim.

Marc Benioff, CEO and chairperson of cloud computing company Salesforce.com, delivered the keynote address at the class of 2015’s commencement ceremony Saturday, saying corporations should be used as platforms for social change.

Benioff’s selection as commencement speaker was announced later than in previous years and came after the campus confirmed that neither President Barack Obama nor celebrity chef Guy Fieri had been booked for the event. Benioff, a University of Southern California alumnus, drew media attention in March after suspending his company’s programs in Indiana after the state’s passage of a contentious religious freedom law.

In his address, Benioff said that in founding Salesforce.com, he realized that companies, rather than simply manufacturing products, can participate in activism and philanthropy and “change the state of the world.”

“I know that the best and brightest — like you, who are graduating here today — are looking for more than a paycheck,” he said, “though one would not hurt.”

After being “incensed” by the passage of an Indiana bill protecting religious freedom — then condemned by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights advocates for sanctioning anti-LGBT discrimination — Benioff tweeted that Salesforce.com would “dramatically reduce its investment in Indiana” and would cancel all company programs there. Other tech companies, such as Apple, also condemned the state law.

“I had no idea where all this was going. This was not familiar territory — it was not what I learned in business school,” Benioff said. “But something big was unfolding in real time. I was just doing what was right for our employees and our customers.”

Benioff drew criticism from some students, such as graduating political science major Shireen Ebrahim, who said she felt that his speech primarily served to promote Salesforce.com.

“I highly commend Mr. Benioff on his philanthropic acts, but must recognize that Berkeley students deserve a speaker who is mainly focused on inspiring them,” she said in an email.

Other speakers included graduating senior Radhika Kannan, the 2015 University Medalist, who spoke about coping with the sudden illness-related death of her mother in her junior year, as well as the 2015 Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award recipient Patrick Awuah and Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

In his speech, Dirks said that despite UC Berkeley’s “increasing reliance on private sources of revenue, such as philanthropy,” the school’s academic contributions to the broader public are central to “who we are.”

“Knowledge is power, and now your task is to use this power to address the most significant challenges of our time,” he said.

The class of 2015 gift committee presented a memorial plaque during the event, to be installed in Dwinelle Plaza, and reportedly raised more than $90,000 in donations for the campus.

The ceremony was livestreamed and was expected to draw 21,000 in attendance, according to a campus press release. As the crowd streamed onto Piedmont Avenue, senior Yali Ma, graduating with a degree in economics, was greeted by her family — which bore gifts and balloons — outside the stadium.

“(I can) finally get the hell out of university,” she said.

Contact G. Haley Massara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @BylineGraph.