This high-flying tech executive’s life changed when he sent Marc Benioff an email during an internship at Salesforce

This high-flying tech executive’s life changed when he sent Marc Benioff an email during an internship at Salesforce

  • George Hu is the chief operating officer at cloud communications provider Twilio. He served in the same role at Salesforce between 2011 and 2014.
  • Hu worked his way up to COO at Salesforce after sending the firm’s billionaire founder, Marc Benioff, an email when he was an intern in 2002.
  • Hu was personally mentored by Benioff after impressing him with an analysis of the company’s customer base.
  • He spoke to Business Insider about being Benioff’s protégé, and how the Salesforce boss has influenced his own leadership style at Twilio.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

You might not instantly recognize George Hu’s name, but he quietly occupies a spot among some of Silicon Valley’s most influential executives.

The 43-year-old is the current COO of Twilio, the public cloud communications platform which counts firms like Uber and Deliveroo as clients, and is valued at more than $16 billion.

Between 2011 and 2014, Hu served as the COO at Salesforce, with the company generating more than $4 billion in annual revenue by the time he left. He was even named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2010.

But if it wasn’t for a single email Hu sent to billionaire Salesforce founder, Marc Benioff, while interning at the company back in 2002, his career could have panned out very differently.

“I remember there was a problem at the company, and I sent a note out to the CEO at the time, Marc Benioff, and said ‘Hey, here’s my analysis of the problem’, even though I was an intern.”

The problem was that Salesforce didn’t have a full understanding of its customers, despite being part of the customer relationship management industry. Hu found a massive amount of data that Salesforce had about each of its customers and carried out an in-depth analysis of it.

Marc Benioff, the billionaire cofounder of Salesforce, has exerted a profound influence on George Hu’s career.

He found that most of Salesforce’s new users were coming in through word-of-mouth and referrals, rather than through advertising. This meant that Salesforce stopped spending money on print advertising and began investing more in salespeople, to carry out more follow-ups.

Soon after emailing his analysis to Benioff, Hu was summoned for a face-to-face meeting.

Benioff took Hu under his wing at Salesforce

“Benioff called me into his office and said ‘let’s talk about your future career,'” recalls Hu. “He said: ‘I’m going to start guiding your career personally and moving you up through the company.’

“He told me, ahead of time, ‘I’m not going to move you straight up through the organisation through one function. I’m going to move you around through every function intentionally.’

“And that’s what happened, actually. If you look at my résumé at Salesforce, I moved through different roles every 18 months.”

These roles included product manager for small and medium businesses, senior vice president of applications, chief marketing officer, and, of course, chief operating officer. It would be a mistake, however, to think Hu was preordained for the C-suite.

“Benioff never told me ‘you’re going to get to the top'” he explains. “He just said ‘I’m going to manage your career personally, and I’m going to move you around the company, and you’re going to have to trust me.’

Salesforce’s glitzy headquarters are a far cry from the company’s early days, when Hu was an intern.
Lynn Yeh/Shutterstock

“So, towards the end of my time at Salesforce, the COO role became the logical outflow; the natural function for me, because I had a personal view of every aspect of the business. That’s made me effective as a COO, and that’s why I love the [COO] role.

Read more:The rise of Marc Benioff, the bombastic Salesforce CEO who’s buying up Time Magazine for $190 million

He continues: “When I was an intern at Salesforce, the leadership had a very strong ability to connect with employees and guide them.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people at Salesforce who were there for a long time, and they’d all tell you the same thing: that they had opportunities to move forward all the time.

“I see that same type of connection at Twilio – that same sense of people feeling special. I think that’s a really hard thing to do in corporate culture, and I think when you see people building great companies, I think [getting people to feel special] is the key ingredient.”

Hu says COO roles became a “natural function” for him after Benioff deliberately gave him a wide variety of roles at Salesforce.
Thomson Reuters

Indeed, Hu was so influenced by Benioff’s mentorship that he left Salesforce in 2014 to found Peer, a workplace feedback startup, which was acquired by Twitter in 2016. Benioff himself invested an undisclosed sum of his own money into the project.

Hu’s advice for aspiring leaders

“Peer was all about helping people find their path,” says Hu. “I coached people; I got people to tell me their dreams. I want to help people find their path, as happened to me. I ask young executives what their dreams are – not just for their careers, but for their lives.”

As part of his work at Twilio – which acquired email API provider SendGrid for $2 billion in February – Hu continues to mentor aspiring executives.

“I tell all young executives ‘find yourself a champion.’ A great champion can help people find genuine enjoyment in their work that they might not find otherwise.

“Here at Twilio, for example, I put one of our lead analysts in charge of sales accounts even though she’s never done sales before. She just won one of our internal employee awards.”

“The biggest thing I see consistently with young executives is that they don’t know what’s possible; they don’t know what’s out there. As an aspiring executive, it’s very easy to go with the flow. [Showing me what’s possible] is what Marc Benioff did for me, and that’s what I try to do for others around me.

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George Hu
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